Public officials and nonprofit service providers are not all surprised by a recent report that one in five Connecticut youth are at-risk or disconnected. But the problem is that so many people are.
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“Once people understand in this state, they’ll care more than they do now,” Dalio Education CEO Andrew Ferguson said during a the first in a series of forums on the report, Unspoken Crisis: At-Risk & Disconnected Youth, which was commissioned by Dalio Education. “If they care, they’ll act.”
The first of those forums was Thursday in Norwalk, when Ferguson told the audience that 119,000 people between the ages of 14 and 26 are either at-risk or disconnected.
At-risk means they are not on a path to graduate from school on time, while disconnected means they face certain obstacles, such as not having graduated from high school or a similar program, and are finding difficulty getting a job. Or they’re in prison.
Advocates in Norwalk said the results match what they’ve been seeing when trying to help students and young adults.
“We’re not shocked by it,” Mike Duggan, executive director of Domus Kids, said of the report. “We need other people to be shocked and act.”
Duggan and others also said the report’s data, which goes back to 2015, shows the problem is not the result of COVID. The pandemic simply highlighted the issue.
Service providers said it’s important to intervene as soon as possible. The study found that 40% of at-risk or disconnected youth find employment at age 22.
Those who do find work also typically earn well below the necessary amount for economic independence in the state.
“When we’re missing the opportunities to work with them, we’re missing the opportunity to do better by our communities, to do better by our society,” Marc Donald, executive director of the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership, said.
Many of the service providers in attendance at the event said students need support at critical transitions in their education, especially moving from fifth to sixth grade and from eighth to ninth grade.
They also said it’s important that teachers, staff and parents get involved or ask for help, even if the students don’t initially want it.
“We don’t get them when they’re ready, willing and able. The work is because they’re not ready, willing and able,” Duggan said.
At the same time, service providers said it’s important that students feel welcome and engaged.
“No matter what trouble you get in, you can always come back here,” Novellete Peterkin, CEO of the Carver Foundation of Norwalk, said.
Peterkin said it’s also important to ensure that each student has the support to meet their individual needs, instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach.
She gave an example of a Norwalk student who needed six years to graduate high school before excelling and becoming a teacher in the school district.
The service providers said change won’t happen, though, without addressing some of the other hurdles students face outside of school, including housing, poverty and transportation.
Many of the service providers said they provide food and transportation for students as well as support and counseling.
“This is about systems and structures that have perpetually failed young people,” Mendi Blue Paca, President and CEO of the Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, said.
Speakers also made a plea for more state aid. Schools received American Rescue Plan Act funding for programming to help students who struggled with shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Service providers said public officials should find ways to fund programs that were successful.
CCM’s next forum is Tuesday in Wethersfield, starting at 6 p.m. The event will be livestreamed on Facebook.
The forums continue Thursday in Torrington, followed by events Nov. 13 in Middletown and Nov 14 in Windham.