MIDDLETOWN — One in five Connecticut youths ages 14 to 26 was at risk of not graduating from high school or being disconnected from career paths in 2022, according to a recent study by Dalio Education.
To raise awareness on the issue, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities hosted five roundtable discussions throughout the state with local legislators and stakeholders working to address the crisis.
The fourth roundtable was hosted at the Community Health Center Inc. in Middletown on Monday evening.
"We have a statewide crisis," said Andrew Ferguson, co-CEO of Dalio Education, which collaborates with educators, schools, non-profit organizations and communities across Connecticut to engage young people and achieve positive youth outcomes, according to its website. "What you're going to hear about tonight is about every town, every city in this state, and it's one that is largely unspoken, or unseen or unheard. In other words, it's almost invisible despite being a statewide crisis."Who are ‘disconnected’ or ‘at-risk’ youths?
Released in October, "Connecticut's Unspoken Crisis: Getting Young People Back on Track" is a study analyzing various data from state agencies on young people aged 14 to 26 from 2014 to 2022.
Per the study, "at-risk" is a population of high school students at higher risk of not graduating because of low credit attainment, chronic absenteeism or behavioral incidents resulting in suspensions or expulsions.
Meanwhile, "disconnected" describes the combined population of youths 14 to 26 struggling with higher education or employment following high school graduation. This group includes unemployed individuals, individuals without a high school diploma and incarcerated individuals.
Several panelists at the roundtable emphasized that these labels of "disconnected" and "at-risk" don't describe the youth themselves but rather the circumstances that they are in.
For example, Nazario, Hartford’s Human Relations Commissioner, noted that many systemic issues contribute to a young person's ability to succeed. She explained that often, youth feel a lack of hope, and it's vital to meet "them where they are not just physically, but emotionally really connecting with them."What is the impact?
Ferguson helped open the roundtable discussion by presenting a brief summary of Dalio Education's study to showcase the widespread crisis. He said that combined, the number of disconnected or at-risk youths in Connecticut could fill all the seats of Yankee Stadium twice.
According to the study, an estimated 119,000 young people are at risk or disconnected, with 56,000 high school students at risk and 63,000 disconnected from education or employment in 2022. In addition, roughly a new 10,000 young people experience disconnection each year.
The study found that the highest concentrations of at-risk and disconnected youths lived in the major cities throughout Connecticut in 2022. However, every community was impacted at varying rates.
In Meriden, greater than 30 to 40% of youths are disconnected or at risk of not graduating high school, which is similar to rates seen in Waterbury, New Haven, Danbury, as well as rural communbities like Putnam and Plainfield. Hartford, Bridgeport and Windham saw the highest rates of disconnected youth at greater than 40%, according to the study. Meanwhile, greater than 10 to 20% of youths in Wallingford, Cheshire and Southington are disconnected or at risk.
Many of the panelists at the roundtable noted that young people don't suddenly become disconnected or at-risk; instead, there are warning signs.
Erika Nowakowski, executive director of Tow Youth Justice Institute, explained that many young people are "known to us in multiple systems" and have complex situations impeding their growth, such as trauma history, housing instability, interactions with child protective services, or issues with law enforcement.
"The moment we hear 'at-risk' or 'disconnected,' we need to ask ourselves, 'Where in the multiple systems was there a significant gap? There was a gap somewhere,'" she said.
The impact of being disconnected or at risk has ripple effects on a young person's future. For example, the study found that disconnected young people are five times more likely to have a criminal record and more likely to be incarcerated, with nearly half of the prison population in Connecticut comprising individuals who dropped out of high school.
There's also a significant impact on the state, with the study noting that helping disconnected youths would save $400 million in costs and realize up to $350 million in additional tax revenues annually.Addressing the crisis
Many roundtable discussion panelists said that the Dalio Education study only affirmed what they already knew and emphasized the need for swifter action through open collaboration between the various organizations.
For example, Chris DiPentima, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said that workforce development for disconnected youth has to be "more than just job training" and requires a wraparound approach to address an individual's barriers to employment. He added that employers need to reframe their hiring procedures to hire based on skills rather than degrees to create more opportunities.
It's “taking time for businesses to retrain themselves around how they go around recruiting individuals because it's a novelty," he said. "But we need to do these things as a marathon. This is very complicated and we need to do more of it."
Similarly, Leonard Jahad, executive director of CT Violence Intervention Program, said that the key to helping disconnected or at-risk youth is fostering and sustaining relationships with them. He explained that often disconnected and at-risk youths feel abandoned and desire connection.
Nowakowski echoed this by explaining the importance of having young people at the table and listening to their needs when developing programs for them.
In addition to more research, chief operating officer of Our Piece of the Pie, LaTasha Williams, emphasized the importance of uplifting and implementing best practices already working. She also stresses the importance of increasing access to youth programs and services by addressing their individual needs.
"Sometimes, when we're doing this work, it becomes very siloed. I think it's really important for us, as we move the needle …that we're having visibility," Williams said. Fostering belonging
Middletown School Superindent Alberto Vásquez Matos said that over a year, chronic absenteeism dropped in Middletown Public Schools from 29% to 11%. He explained that the district accomplished this by "[digging] deep" and addressing the root causes of absenteeism. Through many conversations with local organizations, Matos said the district was able to create new support systems for students and parents while bolstering the support they had.
For example, he said that each school now has a minimum of one social worker, and they created the Student Engagement Specialist position as an adult advocate for students. In addition, they revamped the school resource officers with the Middletown Police Department and hired a family engagement liaison to facilitate home visits.
Matos added that they also implemented several ideas pitched by the students, such as providing breakfast, lunch and dinner at schools and helping students with transportation.
He explained that there's still much work left to ensure that young people have continued access to these programs within schools and foster a sense of belonging.
"It's very easy for students to feel a sense of belonging with a gang, then to actually find that school, so how do we get back to that place where schools have this sense of belonging for anyone? That requires a mindset of seeing [that] this population of students … bring a wealth of assets," he said. "If we change the trajectory, [these students] will be the best leaders of our school community that you would have asked for."
Panelists at Monday's roundtable also included Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim; Emily Palling, executive director of the RISE Network and Jackie Santiago Nazario, CEO of COMPASS Youth Collaborative and the Human Relations Commissioner for Hartford. The panel was moderated by Kathryn Hauser, anchor and reporter of WTNH.
Health Equity reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 203-317-2448. Support RFA reporters through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re.