Workforce readiness for high school seniors: Washington, D.C.
- Helping students attend school and earn a secondary credential: Students with high levels of absenteeism have lower academic performance and educational attainment. Those who do not complete high school or earn an equivalent credential face increased risk for a range of negative economic and health outcomes. Approaches to increase student attendance and persistence include dropout prevention programs, attendance and truancy interventions, mentoring programs, and alternative high schools. For adults and older adolescents that are disconnected from a traditional high school, alternative secondary credential programs may be appropriate.
- Targeting the drivers of poor attendance: Attendance and truancy programs work to remove barriers students face to regular school attendance. Typically, programs offer a range of support services to address common causes of poor attendance, such as health problems, family issues, or academic challenges. In addition, some schools examine internal policies that promote absences, like out-of-school suspensions, to find alternatives that keep students in school. While many programs are school-based, those focused on students involved in truancy cases may be run by court systems.
- Boosting student persistence: Dropout prevention programs aim to keep students in school by increasing school engagement, school attachment, and academic performance. Common approaches include reducing class sizes, offering tutoring, and starting mentoring programs. To further support students, many programs offer more intensive support services, like case management and vocational training. Programs can be school- or community-based, and they can serve entire schools or target specific groups at high risk of dropping out, like students that are pregnant.
- Offering alternative models of high school: Alternative high school programs aim to help students at risk of not completing high school earn a secondary credential. Programs vary considerably in form and intensity, with some being delivered in traditional school environments and others using separate facilities. Similarly, some programs focus on a narrow range of interventions, like mentoring, while others offer more comprehensive services, from counseling and tutoring to career education.
- Helping individuals complete their secondary education: General Education Development (GED) and High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) programs help individuals without a high school diploma earn an equivalent credential. Credentials are awarded to students who pass a series of exams meant to test knowledge of high school subjects, like math, reading, and science. To increase students’ chance of success, programs typically offer academic supports, such as prep courses or tutoring. Some programs supplement academic supports with counseling or social services.
- Matching students with mentors: Volunteer mentoring programs, like Big Brothers Big Sisters, recruit community members to serve as mentors to area youth. Typically, programs primarily focus on building supportive relationships between youth and their mentors. Program design varies, with both community- and school-based programs being common.
Strategies to improve attendance, strengthen school persistence, and create alternative paths to graduation are supported by multiple rigorous studies with positive results.
A 2017 research synthesis found that attendance interventions for chronically absent students were a scientifically supported approach to improving student attendance.
A 2016 research synthesis found that dropout prevention programs are a scientifically supported approach to increasing high school completion.
A 2016 research synthesis found that dropout prevention programs for teen mothers are a scientifically supported approach to increasing high school completion.
A 2016 research synthesis found that alternative high schools for at-risk students are a scientifically supported strategy for increasing high school completion.
A 2022 research synthesis found some evidence that high school equivalency credential programs increase earnings and reduce recidivism.
A 2016 research synthesis found some evidence that Big Brothers Big Sisters reduces delinquent behavior and increases academic achievement.
Results and accomplishments
Urban Alliance participants connected to college, employment, or a career training program one year after participating
Increased likelihood of male Urban Alliance participants attending college
Increased likelihood of Urban Alliance participants with GPAs between 2.0 and 3.0 attending college
- Scaling up and out to serve more students: Urban Alliance has grown within and beyond Washington, D.C., now providing internships to around 250 under-resourced youth per year across the metropolitan region. The program offers internships to over 150 students per year in the District; around 80 students per year in Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax Counties in Virginia; and around 40 students per year in Montgomery and Prince George’s County in Maryland.
- Reaching students earlier in high school: In recent years, Urban Alliance has begun providing robust workforce readiness programming to students before their senior year. This programming now serves over 500 additional students in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and southern Maryland per year.
- Bringing partners together: In every county and school district it operates in, the program has helped galvanize networks of public sector leaders, schools, businesses, non-profits, and philanthropies focused on preventing youth disconnection and improving outcomes for youth following high school graduation.
- Offering paid internships: Program participants are paid, earning approximately $7,000-8,000 over the course of their internship. Eighty percent of students use at least a portion of their income to help cover household expenses.
The Washington, DC region has long experienced high rates of youth disconnection and low levels of youth employment. As the cost of living in Washington rose through the early 2010s, many low-income families were displaced into the surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Many of these suburban school districts did not have the resources or programming to meet the needs of this growing contingent of lower-income students.
To address the problem, Urban Alliance expanded from Washington, DC to northern Virginia in 2013 and then to southern Maryland in 2017. Urban Alliance’s flagship program provides high school seniors with an intensive work readiness and skills development curriculum; a paid, 9-month internship; and one-on-one coaching and mentoring. Recently, it has begun offering in-school workforce readiness training to students before their senior year.
Keys to the program’s success included support from large employers, who have offered internships and encouraged other businesses to do the same; senior public sector champions, like mayors and county executives, who have convened key leaders as Urban Alliance expanded; support from school leaders in recruiting students and managing logistics; and careful data collection and program evaluation, which has strengthened support for the program over time.
What was the challenge?
- D.C. youth face high levels of disconnection: Washington, D.C. has long experienced high rates of youth disconnection and low levels of youth employment. Youth disconnection is particularly pervasive in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, which have suffered from decades of disinvestment and neglect. In 2013, 33 percent of young people aged 16-24 in D.C.’s Southeast quadrant were out of school and unemployed.
- Low-income families displaced to suburbs: Over the past two decades, the cost of living in Washington, D.C. has risen dramatically, pushing many low-income families into the surrounding suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. This displacement has fueled the growth of hidden pockets of poverty in relatively wealthy areas. In several school districts across the region, over half of students now qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
- Suburban schools lack services: Many of these suburban schools did not have resources or programming focused on the needs of lower-income students and lacked services that helped under-resourced students develop post-graduation plans.
What was the solution?
- Focusing on youth employment: Over the past several years, civic leaders across the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region have collectively recognized the growing need for programs that help lower-income students gain early exposure to the labor market, create positive employment trajectories after high school, and prevent youth disconnection.
- Preparing high school seniors for the workforce: Urban Alliance was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1996. Its flagship program provides high school seniors with an intensive work readiness and skills development curriculum, a paid, 9-month internship in a professional setting, and one-on-one coaching and mentoring from program staff and internship mentors.
- Expanding to D.C. suburbs: After a successful expansion to Baltimore in 2008, Urban Alliance began expanding throughout the Washington, D.C. region. The program’s Northern Virginia replication launched in 2013, and its southern Maryland operations began in 2017.
- Serving younger high schoolers: In recent years, Urban Alliance has expanded programming to provide more rigorous workforce readiness training to students before their senior year of high school.
What factors drove success?
- Support from employers: Several large employers have supported many interns per year and have been vocal champions in encouraging other businesses across the region to host interns of their own.
- Public and nonprofit leaders as conveners: Public and civic sector champions are critical conveners for the sorts of partnerships with schools and businesses that Urban Alliance relies on. In many instances across the region, Mayors and County Executives have helped bring school leadership, local non-profits, and local employers to the table.
- Partnerships with schools: Support from school leadership is critical for recruiting students, managing the logistics of getting students to their internships, and enabling work readiness programming for non-seniors.
- An ability to demonstrate results: Meticulous data collection and a successful randomized controlled trial (completed by the Urban Institute in 2017) helped attract significant funding from the public sector and philanthropy, fueling the Urban Alliance’s growth across the region and beyond.
Andrew Plepler, then an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, co-creates Urban Alliance with Jeffrey Zients. The program begins by providing internships to 6 seniors in one school, Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast Washington, D.C.
A change in District-wide policy formalizes a process for high school seniors to attend classes for only half a day. Urban Alliance moves to recruit half-day students from several high schools. By 2005, the program operates across the city.
Urban Alliance partners with the Urban Institute to evaluate the program’s impact. The evaluation tracks the progress of over 1,000 participants in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore over several years.
Urban Alliance receives $1.7 million from Venture Philanthropy Partners to expand into Northern Virginia and prepare for an expansion into Maryland. Programming begins in Alexandria in Fall 2013.
The U.S. Department of Education awards Urban Alliance a $9.6 million grant from the Investing in Innovation Fund, allowing the program to serve more youth in its existing locations, expand to a new region, streamline and strengthen its national operations, and further evaluate its results.
In a widely circulated report, the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region identifies Urban Alliance as a promising strategy to address youth disconnection; the Foundation soon funds Urban Alliance to expand to Montgomery County. Programming begins in Fall 2017.
With $750,000 funding from AT&T, Urban Alliance begins offering work skills training to 11th graders in Fairfax County. Around 30 students receive services per year.
The Urban Institute begins a second, six-year randomized controlled trial of the program's impact in Baltimore, Chicago, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Urban Alliance partners with Martha’s Table, an anti-poverty non-profit, to deliver work readiness training to 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students in Southeast D.C. The program now serves over 250 students per year.
How did leaders confront the problem?
- Identifying a changing problem: Growing evidence across the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region demonstrates high rates of youth disconnection and low rates of youth employment. As cost of living in Washington, D.C. increases, it pushes many lower-income families into surrounding suburbs. Suburban school districts are underequipped to serve increasing numbers of low-income students.
- Building support for a solution: Public, private, and civic sector champions in Northern Virginia and Maryland convene networks of school leaders, employers, local non-profits, and philanthropy to lay groundwork for Urban Alliance’s operations.
- Selecting a program with a track record of success: Urban Alliance had developed a strong track record of success in Washington, D.C since mid-1990s. With support from Venture Philanthropy Partners and the Greater Washington Community Foundation, Urban Alliance begins conversations with civic leaders in Northern Virginia and Maryland to assess feasibility of expansion.
How was the strategy designed?
- Connecting students to internships: Since its founding in 1996, Urban Alliance’s core service has been connecting students to paid, 9-month internships with local employers. Students work approximately 12 hours per week during the school year and close to full time during the summer.
- Providing mentoring and support: Students are supported by a one-on-one mentor at their workplace and by Urban Alliance staff on an ongoing basis. Students are provided a variety of professional and personal supports.
- Preparing students to succeed: Each participant receives six weeks of pre-employment skills training before starting their internship. Once participants have started their internship, one day per week is spent in workshops focused on post-high school planning, college and career application assistance, and life skills development.
How was the approach funded?
- Strong support from employers: While the bulk of Urban Alliance’s funding comes from employer partners’ direct support of interns, the program seeks philanthropic and public sector support for its launch in both North Virginia and Maryland. This allows the organization to build its base of employer partners while still serving cohorts of 30 students in its first year.
- Public and philanthropic dollars fund expansion: Initial expansion funding comes from a $1.7 million grant from Venture Philanthropy Partners over five years. Program operations in Northern Virginia are also supported by local CDBG dollars via the Alexandria Fund for Human Services. In Montgomery County, Urban Alliance receive $187,500 of public funding via the Greater Washington Community Foundation’s Children’s Opportunity Fund.
How was the plan implemented?
- Securing funding, identifying partners, and handling logistics: For both Northern Virginia and Maryland, once funding is secured and a critical mass of employer partners confirmed, Urban Alliance begins logistical work with school districts, creating plans for early release for participants, finding spaces that could be used for skills training workshops, arranging transportation from schools to internships, etc.
- Extensive recruitment efforts: Recruitment occurs largely at schools through information sessions, classroom visits, and partnerships with teachers and guidance counselors, who serve as major referral sources.
- Government leaders increase visibility: Program visibility among employers increases through a series of high-profile events with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, MD Congressman Jamie Raskin, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, then-Vice President Joe Biden, and Virginia State Sen. Adam Ebbin.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- Using independent evaluation: In 2011, Urban Alliance partners with the Urban Institute to conduct a multi-year evaluation of the high school internship program in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD. The findings are published in 2017 and demonstrate the positive effects the program has on college enrollment and workforce readiness skills. A second randomized controlled trial is currently underway to deepen the organization’s learnings.
- Removing a barrier to expansion: In 2016, recognizing the major barrier to serving more youth is the number of employers willing to sponsor student interns, Urban Alliance begins offering workforce readiness training to thirty 11th graders per year in Fairfax County. In 2018, this more robust workforce readiness programming expands to serve 150-300 9th-11th graders in southeast Washington per year via a partnership with Martha’s Table, a local anti-poverty non-profit.
- Integrating into a school district: In Prince George's County, Maryland, the pre-senior year workforce training curriculum is delivered in-school to career and technical education students. Urban Alliance also supplements school efforts to find work placements for these students.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in completing this case study: Eshauna Smith, Emily Rogers, and Julie Farkas of Urban Alliance; and Alessandra Hashemi.