By Minerva Perez
California Health Report
Central Valley communities have the highest percentage of youth in the state who are not working and not in school, according to a recent report. Advocates in the afflicted counties say there is a way to help these so-called “disconnected youth” by building a council specifically aimed to address their needs.
The report, compiled by kidsdata.org and derived from the 2010 Census’s American Community Survey, cited Merced County as having the highest percentage of disconnected youth ages 16-19 with 13.5 percent, the highest percentage in all of California.
“Merced already has a reputation of ‘there is nothing to do around here’ so it’s not very surprising,” Michelle Xiong, the youth coordinator for the Merced’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, said of the indicators. “It’s still sad that this is what we are known for.”
With an unemployment rate at approximately 17 percent in Merced, it is not surprising that teens are having a hard time finding work, but Xiong said the structure of the school system might have something to do with their disengagement.
From her experience working with youth she believes that for most teens is the lack of opportunities to learn in a fun way that is different from academia leads students to stray away from school.
“We get a lot of kids that are suspended at a very early age,” she said. “Suspension leads to being kicked out and that leads to not having a job or contributing to the community.”
“It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to come back from,” she said.
Merced isn’t the only Central Valley community that is one of the top three counties with the most percentage of disconnected youth. Kern County, which includes the city of Bakersfield in the south, has 13.2 percent and Sutter County just north of Sacramento has 12.7 percent of their older teen population not going school and not working.
Jennie Archuelta, business workforce specialist for Sutter One Stop Shop, the adult education and workforce development arm of their county’s office of education, said it’s difficult for some of the youth she serves to finish their exit requirements from high school, putting them on a path that it is hard to recover from.
Some of teens she serves do struggle through school but other factors, Archuleta said, such as being a teen parent or having a criminal history, also play to being unable to find work or go to school. “Some of them get so far behind they get discouraged,” she said.
In Kern County, Karine Kanikkeberg a resource teacher at Kern High School — the largest 9-12 district in the state – said it’s easy for students to drop out of school for some youth and it is often family-driven especially in the Hispanic population, where youth feel the need to help out their family financially in a county with 13.6 unemployment rate.
“In the job market, our people are competing with people who have been in the workforce longer, have that history, and are also looking for a job,” she said.
The kidsdata.org report points out that when older teens become disengaged they can have long-term negative effects on employability and earning potential. It also points to a study by America’s Promise Alliance that found youth disconnection costs U.S. taxpayers in lost tax revenue and increased social services costs in 2011.
More importantly, the advocates say, is the findings that disconnected youth are at a higher risk of becoming young parents or encounter violence. They also tend to struggle more with substance abuse and mental illness which is one of the reasons Xiong and other youth advocates in Merced County are going to be pushing the city council for action.
Xiong has been attending Merced city council meetings asking them to set aside 3 percent of their discretionary budget for “healthy youth development,” she and her colleagues recently put it in writing and plan to advocate for it at the council’s ongoing budget planning sessions.
The goal, she said, is to create a youth commission that will get into more specifics of what healthy youth development is and that it will provide input on decisions affecting youth by youth throughout the town similar to the Youth Commission in San Francisco.
“They have been presented budgets from other departments for public safety and more but what we are saying is don’t separate youth development from public safety,” it’s the same thing Xiong added that investing in youth development is a public safety concern. “We have to push this way of thinking on them.”
Kanikkeberg and Archuleta both have a youth council in their counties. Archuleta is actually a new member of the Sutter County youth council, but Kanikkeberg said hers could be a little bit more robust, and also cites San Francisco’s as the model.
Emylene Aspilla, director of strategic initiatives for the Office of Workforce Development in San Francisco, said in an e-mail that the youth council in the city and county of San Francisco represent a broad group of agencies who have a vested interest in creating the best possible outcomes for youth.
Their areas of focus primarily include identifying best practices for serving youth, streamlining the City’s overall youth workforce service strategies and supporting increased accessibility to training and job placement for youth particularly for those with the highest barriers to employment.
Although the Youth Council does not include members under 18 years old, the Youth Commission, a separate policy body similar to the one Xiong wants to create, was created in 1995 and made up of youth ages 12-23 to comment and recommend on all proposed laws “that primarily affect the children and youth” of San Francisco to the mayor and the board of supervisors.
The director of the Youth Commission is also a member of the Youth Council, Aspilla said.
There are some good things also happening around youth in her city outside of the schools and youth council, Kanikkeberg said, mainly spearheaded faith-based communities. For instance she mentioned a predominantly African-American church that offers free exit exam tutoring for students. Archuleta also said the city she is based out of, Marysville, has been working hard recently to provide youth of all ages with recreational activities after school.
Still, Kanikkeberg said ,it is frustrating at times to talk about youth needs and prevention with policymakers.
“It’s always easier to keep someone in than reconnecting them,” she said of possible solutions. “But I don’t think it’s an important enough issue for the people in charge.”
“The kids are the last thing we think off,” she said.