Ten years ago, there was a crisis in education in Oregon. The state ranked 49 out of 50 in student graduation rate with, by some measures, under 75 percent of students graduating within five years. The state, through the Department of Education, funded efforts to determine the cause and suggest a solution. Out of that effort came, among other initiatives, the formation of Connected Lane County. This year that organization will serve almost 4,000 youth in efforts to help them find success and a brighter future. Heidi Larwick, the Executive Director of Connected Lane County since 2016, updated City club on the organization’s success, particularly the opening of a new 11,000 square foot center at the Booth Kelly site in downtown Springfield.
Has the program succeeded? Because of the way that the state keeps statistics it is not easy to directly attribute improvements in the graduation rate to Connected Lane County programs, Ms. Larwick pointed to numerous successes which strongly suggest that there has been a positive impact as part of the increase of the graduation rate to 80 percent for the 2021-22 school year.
The first of the organization’s programs, the Elevate effort, seeks to help youth learn about the work environment. Many of the students, which connected Lane County identifies by reaching out to school counselors and teachers, but also to community groups and social service organizations, have no idea what it means to be in a work environment. The Elevate program places them in job shadows during the school year and a more intense program during the summer to help them understand what it is like to be in a work situation. A focus of this effort is to excite them about what they might want to do after graduation, whether it is to enter the work environment immediately or continue with further education.
That program, staff discovered, still missed a significant number of youths. As Ms. Larwick explained, if students don’t understand why they are expected to learn something in school they are more likely to check out. The organization created its Navigate program to address that issue, by identifying youth that had disengaged from the schools and help them to reengage and finish their education with a GED.
Most recently, in 2021 the organization added a third program, the Spark program, which builds upon the two earlier efforts by placing youth in work situations where they can develop some actual job experience in preparation for entering the workforce.
Each of these programs addresses not just the narrow range of skills needed to successfully be employed, but also the wrapround skills needed for broader social success, — how to get housing, how to get food, and other life skills.
Each of these programs tends to focus on the 14-18 age range. To address older youth, in the 18-24 year range, the organization has now developed its Excelerator program which combines the other efforts and focuses on that cohort. It is similar to a pre-apprenticeship program in that the first 150 hours of the 300-hour program provides the participants with skills and then they go to a work experience in a company for the balance of 150 hours.
An important feature of the programs is that participants have the opportunity to be paid. The organization spent over $800,000 last year to provide salaries, at $17 per hour (for participants involved in internships and other situations where youth would be unable to take advantage of the program in the absence of compensation. Ms. Larwick noted that about 10 percent of participants are unhoused.
IN response to a question, Ms. Larwick said that the organization is funded from a wide variety of sources. Originally, the funding came d=solely for the State and the program was housed at the Lane Education Services District. IN 2017 they separated from the ESD and opened a facility in Eugene. Now they have broad support from foundations and businesses and in some cases, contact with outside companies to provide services and products. She specifically noted how they provide laser cutting cervices to the Hult Center and \recently had an arrangement with Columbia Sportswear to repair jackets that had been returned by original purchasers because of failing zippers. At their existing facility in Eugene, they have equipment for laser engraving, desktop cutting equipment for small scale metal fabrication, vinyl cutters, tee shirt presses, sewing machines and sergers. The new Springfield facility will expand on these machines to offer more training experiences and product services and hopes to add equipment for training in welding. The Springfield facility will also have laundry and shower facilities to address the needs of housed participants.
To see the slide presentation offered at the program, click on the Connected Lane County presentation.
To watch the entire program on You Tube, Click Watch the Program.