That you are reading this newspaper means the odds are pretty good that you have a college education. And if you have a college education, it is almost certain that you entered high school knowing that you would like to attend college.
Count yourself among the lucky. For a lot of kids, particularly those in depressed, inner city areas such as Trenton, college-and-career is not a default post-high school path. Dave Anderson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Trenton, says that kids from these types of areas have a grossly distorted view of what awaits them in adulthood.
Kids see themselves destined to be either wildly successful — rap artists, pro athletes, models — or nothing. Or worse, criminals. “There is no in between,” Anderson says. “We try to expose kids to possibilities.”
Three years ago, with the support of Mercer County One Stop, the state Juvenile Justice Commission, and corporate supporters like BlackRock, Bristol-Myers Squibb, PNC Bank, Novo Nordisk, and Tyco, the Boys and Girls Club began its Career Launch program. The three-pronged program identifies interests, develops a plan to follow that interest, and puts kids among employers in their fields.
On Saturday, November 14, the Boys and Girls Club will host its Candlelight Reception for Career Launch dinner from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Cost to attend: $150. For more information, visit www.bgctrenton.org, or call 609-392-3191, ext. 16.
Stemming the tide. The national high school dropout rate is about 30 percent. Trenton’s rate, like those of most inner city/urban areas, varies depending on whom you ask. Ask the city school board and it will echo the national average. Ask Anderson, who cites a landmark and sobering study of high school dropout rates by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Silent Epidemic,” and you will get a number closer to 58 percent.
As appalling as that number is, it is still just a guess. New Jersey has no reliable system for tracking dropouts. Anderson says the state counts the number of kids who walk in the first day of senior year and subtracts the number of those who do not show for a diploma nine months later.
What the state is missing is that most of the dropouts drop out before senior year. In New Jersey you can sign yourself out of high school forever at age 16 — junior year for most people.
Here’s another thing — roughly 75 percent of kids who drop out of school can be identified as future dropouts in middle school, Anderson says. “That means that in our to six years nothing changes,” he says. “Isn’t that a waste.”
To stanch this bleeding, Career Launch sets out early to let kids know there are an awful lot of options between rap star and drug dealer. The trouble is not that these kids have no opportunities, after all. It is that they have no idea what opportunities are out there. “Most of our kids don’t know there is a Mercer County Technical School,” Anderson says.
Shaping the future. Led astray by what they see every day, urban kids develop a badly skewed vision of adult life. In their neighborhoods, Anderson says, they see jobs like cop, fireman, shopkeep — all perfectly good paths to follow, but limited as to the types of careers that are out there.
On the other side, there is TV, where everyone is beautiful, richer than sin, and adored by millions. Quite simply, Anderson says, kids just do not have any realistic exposure to the array of jobs the world offers. “It’s something to see a massage therapist come in and hear kids say ‘I didn’t know I wanted to do that.’”
Starting at age 13, kids can get involved in the club’s Career Explorers program, one of three that steers kids toward a realistic, profitable, and rewarding future. Career Explorers offers a 140-question survey that Anderson says will yield, no matter how the questions are answered, 60 to 90 potential career paths.
From there, choices are whittled down into areas that a kid might like to follow. “We know you want to be a basketball player,” he says. “And that’s great. But what’s the other thing?”
Career Launch’s pilot program three years ago first asked kids the question, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years — in terms of material things?” Between 80 and 90 percent of the kids saw themselves living very well; the other 10 percent, more realistically, if not very inspired.
Then the question was asked: “What career do you plan to have to enable you to live like that?” Predictably, the answers pointed to lavish careers. Anderson’s job is to not discourage the kids, but to sway them into understanding what is involved to get there, even to reverse-engineer the path. In other words, it’s OK to want to be a basketball player, but how many kids realize that to make it to the NBA, you almost certainly need to be recruited from a college? And to play on a college team, you need to carry a B average? And to carry a B, you need to know how to study?
Do it yourself, and other myths. The endless supply of college prep classes, SAT prep courses, learning centers, and tutoring services is testament to the value society puts on education. Many of us are fortunate enough to have grown up in an environment in which a college education or a good, solid sense of business was a given.
For those kids without exposure to the value of school, whether it’s trade school or medical school, there is only a dim hope that they will stumble upon a productive path on their own. Few, of course, do. And few of the fortunate ones seem to get that.
“I sometimes have trouble telling people that,” Anderson says. “It’s like you taking your car to the mechanic and him asking, ‘Why don’t you just fix it yourself?’” These kids are simply not equipped with the tools to search for, much less find, viable futures for themselves.
Another myth is one kids glean on their own — they think they have to have their entire futures mapped out by the time they are 14, and if not, they’re failures. More that not, the path to a career is circuitous. Someone follows a general interest, maybe takes a few college courses or starts a different job, and finds an avenue worth pursuing. But a lot of kids feel as if they won’t make it in life because they didn’t know as a teenager, like, say Thomas Edison or Michael Jordan, exactly who and what they wanted to be.
But there is a reason that there are so few people as extraordinary as Edison or Jordan. We don’t all know, and as Anderson says, “Its good for kids to know that. We try to point out the commonality,” he adds. “All these people graduated high school. And all these people didn’t give up.”
Successes. Career Launch has not been around long enough to see its college or trade school-bound kids finish school and get a career going, but it has seen a remarkable increase in the number of kids who are now removed from the at-risk category.
When the program started three years ago there were three, maybe four kids who planned to go to college. This year there are 60. Part of the success has come from simple exposure to the world beyond the inner city. Boys and Girls Club has taken kids to businesses in the Princeton area such as Tyco, Merril Lynch, and Novo Nordisk. There, says Anderson, the kids see career paths and possibilities they had never heard of before.
Just as important, they see people who look like them, Anderson says. People from similar backgrounds. People who fought their way through school and stayed on course. People who tell them, “Hey, we believe you should go to college.”
Anderson, who grew up in West Windsor and now lives in Montgomery, sings the praises of his organization’s interactions with Mercer County Community College. For a lot of kids, he says, it is simply too late to repair an academic career comprised of Cs and Ds in their senior years — too late to expect to get into a four-year school carrying a B average (vital for receiving financial aid), anyway. “That’s the beauty of Mercer County Community College,” he says. The school provides abundant majors and trade school careers and helps identify weak areas for kids who usually need help building good study habits and staying focused.
A former physical education teacher, Anderson worked with the YMCAs of Princeton and South Brunswick for 17 years before learning that he liked the dichotomy of the educational and managerial sides of professional life. He left the Y for Doylestown Hospital to be executive director of its health program before realizing he “missed the kids” and took the job at the Boys and Girls Club of Trenton.
Anderson often mentions the link between parents and kids in terms of education and career paths. In a city in which 9 percent of the population has a college degree, kids often see their parents getting by in whatever they do and decide to follow suit. Parents, in return, do not encourage their kids to stay in school because they had no use for it themselves, and the cycle continues.
Anderson himself followed his own parents’ lead. His mother was a school teacher and his father a school psychologist. Anderson earned his bachelor’s in physical education teaching and his master’s in exercise physiology from East Stroudsberg University.
Keeping kids focused is a hard job, Anderson admits, but a rewarding one. Money, of course, helps. For those kids who advance through Career Launch, there are paid internships waiting, and that $500 per child does tend to keep kids focused.
But, of course, it’s not only about money. “It’s not just the families, it’s not just the school,” Anderson says. “What is the community doing to help these kids?”