District officials announced Monday the opening of a new centralized office dedicated to helping young high school dropouts get back on track to earn a diploma or GED.
The Youth Reengagement Center in Northeast Washington represents the latest effort to overhaul the city’s public education system by bringing back young adults who had given up on school.
“We can’t financially or morally allow something like this to continue to happen,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said at a ribbon-cutting event, referring to the bleak outcomes for high school dropouts.
Those without a degree are far more likely to live in poverty, become incarcerated and rely on government support.
“We want to get as many of these people back on a path, a constructive path, as we possibly can,” he said.
The District is home to at least 7,493 people ages 16 to 24 who last attended a D.C. public school from 2006-2007 to 2012-2013 and dropped out, according to an analysis by the Office of the State Superintendent for Education that is expected to be released in a few weeks.
That number represents about 14 percent of all city residents in that age group.
More than 40 percent of those considered “disengaged” live in wards 7 and 8. Nearly 60 percent are male, and the vast majority — 86 percent — are African American.
The reengagement center — which has an annual budget of $473,000 and six full-time employees — is modeled after similar programs in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, officials said.
It centralizes work that a lot of agencies, nonprofits and schools are already doing, with the goal of making a bigger impact on the problem.
In a Department of Employment Services building next to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, the center has a wall of windows and a row of computers at which people can fill out job applications or play educational games.
Snacks are on hand, and shelves are filled with free school supplies. Visitors can use a comfortable couch in the corner to relax.
“We want this to be a place where young people will come and say, ‘Hey, I did not have anything else to do today. I’m not in class. I’m not at work, but I don’t want to hang out on the street,’ ” said Ja’Sent Brown, director of the center, who has experience coordinating education programs for homeless youth in the city.
Case managers will work with young people to find a fitting school or GED program, and they will help with getting students assessed and enrolled.
The managers also will address the underlying challenges that made school so difficult in the first place by connecting youths to services for housing, child care, transportation and employment.
“We’re going to be with them for one year. One year solid. Holding their hands, encouraging them, telling them, ‘You can make it. You can do it,’ ” Brown said.
The center opened Monday, but 20-year-old Henry Douglas had connected a month ago while the office was getting unpacked.
Douglas moved to the District last winter from Los Angeles, where he had tried to make it as a street performer doing hip-hop dancing.
“I was 19. No job. No money. No home,” he said during the event. “I was falling into a deep hole that I did not know how to get out of. Every day I would walk around the street trying to find a way to support myself.”
Douglas was staying with his sister, who sent him to the Department of Employment Services.
When he did not qualify for any programs, he received a referral to a case manager at the reengagement center.
Just a few weeks later, Douglas said, his outlook has significantly improved.
He is working at Marshalls and as a custodian at Howard University. He plans to enroll at Ballou Senior High School. He also is on a waiting list for housing.
“I can tell you I’m a different person than I was last month,” Douglas said.