Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly characterized the way it receives funding. Federal funds do not pass through the school's parent organization, the national nonprofit YouthBuild USA. The organization's programs throughout the country compete for grants directly from the U.S. Department of Labor.

YouthBuild drafts opportunities for dropouts

YouthBuild Charter School in the District recruits high school dropouts who want another shot at success.
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

In a run-down apartment building in Northeast Washington, a teenage single mother smooths a concrete mixture into large holes and cracks in the walls of a gutted kitchen. The place is drafty, the work dirty. But this makeshift classroom is also Cierra Fortune's second chance at a high school education.

"When I first heard about it, I thought: 'I'm not going to do construction. I'm a girl,' " said Fortune, 18, who dropped out of school during her junior year when daughter Miracle was born. "High school's not for me anymore. I'm not going to say this is easier, because it's not. But I can manage it better."

YouthBuild Charter School in Columbia Heights recruits recent high school dropouts to study for the GED and learn construction skills such as demolition, installing floors and building retaining walls. Completed class projects -- including the apartments in Northeast and a rehabbed home in the Trinidad neighborhood -- are sold as affordable housing to low-income individuals and families.

The students receive a stipend of as much as $200 a week plus help in arranging child care.

Without that assistance, many of the school's nearly 100 students said they would not be able to attend.

About half of the students are parents. Several have criminal records that limit their job prospects. One-third speak no English.

"It's hard to get a job without a high school diploma. I just got tired of working, and minimum wage isn't enough for me," said Jonnel Jones, 23, who has a 3-year-old daughter and is expecting another child next year. After YouthBuild, Jones plans to enroll at the University of the District of Columbia and study radiology. "If it doesn't work for me, construction is a backup."

The school is one of more than 220 YouthBuild USA sites nationwide. The charter school in Columbia Heights is a model for how the national organization, started in 1990, plans to extend its reach. YouthBuild USA has grown quickly, even as the recession halted development projects and shuttered some nonprofit groups.

Its mission is to create jobs for at-risk youths, teach job skills and provide low-income housing.

YouthBuild has received federal funding since 1994. Last year, the organization got more than $100 million, significantly more than in previous years. Still, the organization turns people away. This year, a program in Philadelphia received 650 applications for 65 spots, said founder and President Dorothy Stoneman, who helped a group of high school dropouts in East Harlem rehab a building in 1978 and grew the program from there.

"We started calling it the 'Harvard of the 'hood' because it's so difficult to get in," she said.

The program in Columbia Heights, one of four in the District, received more than 300 applications this year for 100 spots and used a lottery system -- per charter school regulations -- to decide enrollment.

This fall, the school added three classrooms, which allows it to serve 15 more students.

The charter school hopes to open a second campus in 2011 at the former J.F. Cook Elementary School near North Capitol and P streets NW, which closed last year. The second campus would be able to accommodate an additional 150 students and offer housing for homeless youths, Executive Director Arthur Dade said.

"The demand is there. These students have decided they want to do this, they want to change their life, then they hear that their name didn't get picked," said Dade. "To hear another no -- that could be a huge deterrent for them."

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