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Year Up – Giving Urban Youth a Shot at a New Life

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Everywhere you look in this aging five-storey office building in downtown Boston there are rallying cries for self-improvement. Inspirational quotations stencilled on the walls. Slogans handwritten on pieces of paper pinned to bulletin boards: agree to disagree, be accountable, keep your eyes on the prize.

In one classroom, there is a poster with a stop sign. It is surrounded with Post-it notes, each with a word written on it: Dawg. Bro. Like. Y’all. Damn. Axe (ask). These are “stop” words, slang the students lean on too much, language they will have to drop if they are to fit into an office.

If these dictums bother Wanesha, Rondell, Denise and Jovanny, they never mention it. They have bought into the program. At lunch over sandwiches, they tell me Year Up is their shot at a new life.

Year Up is a not-for-profit program that offers disadvantaged youth from American cities life-skills training and paid internships in corporate offices.

Jovanny Ramos, 24, says he was on the street a lot.  He was seeing his friends go to jail. But now, with a daughter on the way, he wants to become someone she will look up to, not visit in prison.

They tell me about the hoops they had to jump through to get into Year Up — forms, essays, school records, an interview. Ramos tells me about getting the phone call that he was accepted. He happened to be driving. When he got to the next red light, he jumped out and happy-danced right there in the intersection.

Raised in inner-city Boston and more accustomed to hoodies and jeans, these youths wear dress shirts and slacks, blouses and skirts. And now, they are trying to make a graceful exit from our meeting. They politely remind me they can’t be late for class. Not even by a minute. Show up ate too many times and “you fire yourself” out of the program. And that can’t happen. Not when it’s your last best chance.

In 1999, Boston entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian sold he multi-million dollar communications firm he co-founded. He turned his attention to a project he had dreamed up years earlier while at Harvard usiness School.

Chertavian had been a Big Brother in Boston. After e found a job in New York, he became a Big Brother to a boy from the crime-ridden Lower East Side, further witnessing the obstacles to success that urban youth face. He set in motion a plan to help them.

A Wall Street veteran, Chertavian recognized the financial services industry was having trouble retaining university graduates in entry-level positions. They left for greener pastures as soon as they could.

His big idea was to train young adults from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to fill these jobs. They would be paid for taking six months of life skills and technical training, then placed in a six-month paid internship at a financial intuition. Along the way, they would earn 18 college credits.

The fruit of his thinking, Year Up, was born in 2000. Linda Swardlick Smith, now the director of student services, recalls, “We were developing a private school for young men and women who couldn’t afford it. We were paying them to learn . . .

“(We thought) what a difference that would make because they could put the time and energy into learning new skills and not have to worry so much about putting food on the table. And they also could really develop relationships with other people in this community who had networks of support.”

Then she adds, “We weren’t sure whether this program would really work because we had nothing to prove that it would.”

Today, an A-list of corporate partners such as State Street and Fidelity Investments pay Year Up to train a steady stream of recruits. Year Up has been praised by U.S. President Barack Obama and lauded by the Harvard Business Review.

And why not? The employer satisfaction rate is 95  per cent. The program has spread to nine cities, serving 1,500 students a year.  Eighty-four per cent of graduates find jobs or go to college full-time within  four months of their leaving the program.

An independent study compared earnings of a random  sample of Year Up graduates to a random sample of young adults from the same  neighbourhoods. Over time, Year Up graduates earned 30 per cent more.

This close tracking of performance is one of the  hallmarks of Year Up. It is rare in this field. Youth unemployment programs are  devilishly difficult to evaluate. Evaluation requires following individuals for  years after they have left a program to see its lasting effect. It requires  comparing the group of young people who receive the services to a similar group  that hasn’t. This helps answer what difference the intervention made, if any.

Year Up views this painstaking measurement of  outcomes as essential to keeping corporate partners satisfied, and to  attracting new ones. It also speaks to its long-term commitment to its alumni,  to making sure their gains are not lost.

And that means helping them deal with the stress of  new success.

Swardlick Smith says pressure often comes from  home. Mothers tell them, “You have to stay home and take care of your little  brother. I don’t really care about this program that you’re in. You have  priorities in the household, priorities in the family. I have diabetes. As your  mother you need to take me to the hospital. I don’t speak English. As  your mother you need to go and translate for me. Mothers feel like, ‘Where are you going with your life and I’m being left behind.’”

Kern Williams, 25, graduated from Year Up in 2010. Born in Trinidad, he came to Boston as a child. He told me that what held him back was getting his papers in order.  After high school, he scraped by working long hours at a gas station. When he finally became a citizen in September 2008, “it was like a brick wall came down.”

He voted for Obama, whose victory inspired him.  That fall, he also learned he was accepted in the Year Up session beginning in March 2009. That led to a job at State Street mutual funds, and recently a position in property management at Center Realty Group.

He wears a suit five days a week. When he goes back to his neighbourhood, he bumps into his old friends. “It’s just like, well, ‘Why you have to wear a suit? You speak differently now. You’re going to all these different places.’”

Sometimes success at Year Up means leaving friends behind. It can be a difficult adjustment. But alumni also know there are staff they can turn to for support. They learn early that at Year Up, someone always has your back.