True Thao is one of the lucky ones. Now 24, she was born to Hmong parents who couldn't (and mostly still can't) speak English. There were 11 children in her family ' headed, she says, by an abusive father. 'All my friends were scared of him. Even the elders told him not to hit his children like that, so they bruise or bleed.'
School was a constant struggle, and got worse as Thao got older. She hung out with other troubled kids and made what she now describes as 'bad choices.' She mouthed off to her father, exacerbating tensions at home. In high school she started skipping class and eventually was arrested for taking part in a fight. That's when a school social worker steered her into Operation Fresh Start.
It was here that she was first diagnosed as having a learning disability and, by learning how to build houses, developed her will to succeed.
'All my life my parents put me down and told me I would never come to nothing,' she says. 'It was important for me to show them that I could, and to show my siblings and friends that they don't have to be dropouts or criminals. I was the first Hmong girl to build homes.'
Thao graduated from Operation Fresh Start in 2001, and her experience there opened the door to her present career, as youth program coordinator for the nonprofit Freedom Inc. in Bayview, in central Madison, where she grew up. She runs the Hmong boys group, helping them write rÃsumÃs, find community services and jobs, and learn to put their lives into perspective.
'I can relate to the boys,' says Thao. 'In our culture, people get married very young and men rule in the house. I educate them also about relationships. They listen to me and give me their trust.'
Thao remains connected to Operation Fresh Start, located in a nondescript brick building on Winnebago Street, and is at home here as we talk on a recent winter day. She says programs like this 'show you the opportunities out there. You find you have someone to turn to and get help from.'
As we talk, Jonathan Barry ' formerly Dane County executive, now a successful businessman ' hovers around the office. He volunteered for the organization some years back and was roped into becoming its development director.
In recent months, Barry and others have been sounding an alarm about a growing group they label 'disconnected youth.' They say Madison and Dane County need to take the lead in reaching these individuals, connecting them with skills, opportunity and mentoring.
To Barry, it's not just a matter of preventing these young people from becoming a drain on society. It also helps provide needed workers in a variety of fields.
In construction, health care, manufacturing and other fields, there is a looming shortage of workers due to retirements. According to Barry, 'these two trends together ' an aging workforce and increasing numbers of ill-prepared youth ' present a serious threat to our competitiveness as a state and region.'
Over the last several years, the number of students in Madison schools from poor families ' as measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches ' has increased dramatically; in 2006 it totaled 41% of the school population, or 9,879 students. In one recent year, Madison schools graduated just 63% of low-income students, compared to 96% of students from families with higher incomes.
It's not just disconnected youth who pay the price. A recent report from the Center of Wisconsin Strategy, or COWS, found that 178,000 Wisconsin families require public assistance even though they are working year-round. This represents an $837 million-a-year drain on state and federal coffers. In other words, workers who cannot make a living wage end up being subsidized.
Set against this dynamic is Operation Fresh Start. The program at any given time employs about 120 people, mostly high school dropouts, ages 16 to 24. They work in small teams for 34 hours a week, earning $6.50 an hour. They spend about 20% of their time in class and the rest building homes.
Schooling, which takes place in small groups of 4-6 students, is oriented toward earning a GED or high school equivalency diploma, though some students do receive regular diplomas. Each Operation Fresh Start graduate gets a voucher that can be used within seven years for post-secondary education. About 70% of the program's participants graduate, going on to jobs, college or technical schools, and self-sufficiency.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Operation Fresh Start currently has more than 1,000 young people on its waiting list.
Because Thao was recommended for the program by a social worker, she had an edge over other applicants. Still, it took her two interviews to be accepted. While at Operation Fresh Start, Thao met a woman known as Kabzuag, who works in Bayview with local Southeast Asians who are victims of domestic abuse.
'She grabbed a bunch of us dropout girls who didn't work and started throwing issues at us,' recalls Thao. 'Stuff about racism, racial profiling, deportation, how the system works. Next thing we knew we started campaigning. We were called C-TEAM ' Change Through Empowering Asian Minds, which was later changed to Asian Freedom Project, which included guys too.'
After graduating, Thao, with the help of her Operation Fresh Start teacher, opened a bank account and found an apartment. She started working with Kabzuag at Freedom Inc., first as a volunteer, then as an employee, recruiting kids. As she sees it, the most important aspect of programs like Operation Fresh Start is mentoring.
'As a teenager, you don't trust your teachers, your counselors don't understand you,' says Thao. 'But in these programs they stick with you and pick you up if you fall. I don't know where I or my younger brother would be if not for Operation Fresh Start.'
Thao shows me around the building, introducing me to teachers and team leaders and explaining what happens in each room. There are photos of teams at work or with various politicians, and posters made by students with titles like 'Pay Day Loans: Reasons Why You Should Stay Away From These Robbers.'
There's a board on which student accomplishments are noted ('Nov. 8, 2006 ' Travis passed his writing test') and another with testimonials from program alumni. (Advises one graduate, now holding down a $15-an-hour job, 'Stay clean, work hard and follow your programming at OFS, and you will go far.') Besides books, the library room has a small piano and an idyllic home-in-the-country-at-sunset mural, made by a former student.
It's after 5 p.m., and we stop to talk to a teenager who's still hanging around the mostly deserted building. Travis Weisensel is 'building a house, working on life skills and changing. I'm going from the previous things I used to do to better things and bettering my life instead of destroying it.' He says he usually gets here early and stays late because 'it's better than to be in my house.'
Weisensel, with some help from his supervisor, Brian, has researched possible career tracks and put together a plan that includes a five-year paid union apprenticeship in heavy equipment operation. 'They pay me to learn, and I try to get as much work experience here as I can so I can do something good.'
Thao, for her part, is emphatic about the benefits of Operation Fresh Start: 'People should look at these programs and at their own kids. You never know what might happen to them. If not for Operation Fresh Start, I wouldn't be here talking to people like you. Maybe there's something you all can learn from people like me.'
Jonathan Barry goes further, arguing that programs like these serve the Madison area's economic well-being: 'The health of our economy has more to do with our factories, shops and service industries than it does with research parks.'
Barry, former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and Operation Fresh Start executive director Connie Ferris Bailey have been making the rounds of local media and politicians, trying to drum up concern over disconnected youth.
Dane County and Madison, they say, lack sufficient numbers of entry-level and potential employees who have at least a ninth-grade equivalency in math and literacy and other requisite skills: the ability to take direction, work in a team, and adapt to new conditions and challenges.
Our schools, says Barry, do well with motivated, college-bound students, but are increasingly failing students who don't see college in their future. A growing number of disconnected youth don't complete high school and lack the basic skills needed to get and keep a job.
A 'disconnected youth' is someone age 16 to 25 who is not in school, not holding nor seriously looking for a job and who lacks the skills needed to get and keep a self-supporting job. If not helped, he or she will likely have a lifetime of difficulty in the labor market. Many will become at least intermittently dependent on public assistance or spend time in jail or prison, resulting in serious expenses for taxpayers.
They number in the thousands, although no one knows exactly how many. According to Barry, the schools don't track dropouts on a year-by-year basis and in fact are hampered from doing so by state Department of Public Instruction rules that 'quite literally deny the existence of dropouts since every young person is 'required' to be in school through age 18.'
Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center of Wisconsin Strategy, agrees the number of disconnected youth is growing, and includes immigrants with language and literacy barriers. Meanwhile, a study done by the center shows that employers, especially in the construction trades, are having an increasingly hard time finding workers with basic skills.
The face of Madison schools, says Dresser, is the face of Madison's future, so we need to figure out how to make these youths, especially people of color, job-ready. As she puts it, 'The future of the city rests on including these people, providing them the skills they need and advancing them in a way that we haven't done until now.'
Buck Rhyne has worked with disconnected youth, especially those who've had trouble with the legal system, for 20 years. He is now a business consultant and has recently completed an assessment of Americorps projects in the state. He, too, thinks the problem is growing.
'The kids are not dumb,' he says, 'but they don't fit in the traditional educational system. We spend money in places that don't help, like prisons, instead of in training a quality workforce so we can have a good economy.'
The current system, says Rhyne, is 'leaner and meaner' ' a legacy of the Thompson administration years. 'Things are cut and dry ' you screw up once and you're out. We don't help kids who don't know how to work the system so they say 'fuck off' and drop out.'
Rhyne praises the school-and-work model used by Operation Fresh Start: 'It's very powerful, and it works.' He would like to see more systematic and comprehensive outreach to disconnected youth, and more apprenticeships.
Operation Fresh Start is by no means the only program available. Youth Opportunities, housed in the Dane County Job Center, serves as a one-stop shop for youth who have dropped out of school or are facing a crisis like homelessness. They receive orientation, counseling, educational and work resources and help applying for programs, all in a youth-friendly space.
Some businesses are starting their own training programs. Dave Boyer is the chief executive officer of MCD Inc., a print finish and graphic arts products company. He is also a member of the Collaboration Council Workforce Team ' which perhaps helps him understand the challenges his industry faces better than his peers.
Last year MCD paired with the YWCA in launching an apprenticeship program. Three interns, 18 to 23 years old, spend four days a week in MCD's manufacturing plant, learning to operate the equipment and working as part of a team. They spend the fifth day at the Y, learning math, English and life skills.
The apprenticeship is divided into two six-month segments. The interns can leave the program with a certificate after the first part, or stay on for part two. The first three participants chose to stay for both parts, and one was hired by MCD.
Boyer hopes this pilot program will entice other businesses to follow its lead. There are challenges: matching the interns' needs and skill levels, keeping them interested, teaching them skills that the industry needs. And it's not just the young people for whom the program is an educational experience.
'What we're doing,' says Boyer, 'is creating an environment of opportunities and a path where everybody learns. We learn how to improve our training. They learn how to hold a regular job and get feedback. The Y continues to learn how to make these programs productive.'
As a financial supporter of the YWCA for many years, Boyer has come to feel that implementing such a program is more effective than monetary support.
'We'd like to encourage our business peers to be involved in programs like this,' he says. 'They are an effective way to give back to the community. We all have that responsibility.' An apprenticeship program, he adds, 'challenges and improves your training, and these improvements become available to everybody in the company.'
As the executive director of the Madison Apprenticeship Program (MAP), Diana Shinall aims to help Allied neighborhood residents advance in life.
MAP is a 12-week program that runs three nights a week, four hours per night. The program is held at night, she says, so people don't have the excuse of not being able to wake up. Child care and a meal are provided.
The sessions are held in a building with a room for math and one for computers. Each week has a theme, with the first three designed to help people 'get inside' ' look at the issues in their lives that they have ignored ' abuse, alcohol, generations of drug abuse or incest. Woven in are lessons on communications skills and conflict resolution.
Amcore Bank staff teach financial skills, and Madison Gas & Electric staff discuss saving money and paying bills. Gary Gorman, a local real estate developer, teaches how to start a business. The students go on a college tour and learn how to apply. By the fourth week, says Shinall, those who stay with the program show a change in the way they talk and behave.
'I tell students: 'No one can take away your knowledge and wisdom, but you can convert it into credit. Calculate how much you lose if you spend years in prison for selling drugs.''
Shinall's third class graduated in January. Twenty started, 12 finished. So far the program has had 36 graduates. Many have gone on to enter the GED program at MATC or find employment. Shinall tells of one 17-year-old boy who's not yet enrolled in the program but has been sitting in the reception area every night: 'I'm thinking this has become a place for him where he knows he can change.'
MAP gets some help from the city, the state, United Way and Amcore Bank. In a conversation with Isthmus and in mayoral candidate forums, Dave Cieslewicz has noted his support for this program. (He also touted his backing of Allied Drive job fairs and best-value contracting, in which the city requires that the contractors who bid on city services have apprenticeship programs.)
But Shinall says the money she gets is not enough.
'Sometimes I don't get paid for my work,' she says. 'Sometimes I get the food for the meal from my own house. The powers that be should really look at programs like MAP and help them. They can be replicated in every place where people are dying on the vine. We know now that it provides people with a beacon of hope and then they can flourish instead of living bitter and angry lives.'
Shinall's call for more funding for programs like hers is being sounded throughout the community. Former mayor Soglin calls on current officeholders to 'first of all, admit there is a problem,' then do something about it.
'If you go to McDonald's at Worthington Darbo and you engage the kids there, one of them will eventually tell you, 'I want a job, I want money,'' says Soglin. 'There are programs that are proven, but we still have minimal commitment to them. Here we fight crime by locking people up; we're still number one in incarceration of people of color. Prevention can also reduce crime ' but instead we start a gang task force!'
In the past several years, public and private funding targeted at disconnected youth has decreased in actual dollars, says Connie Ferris Bailey of Operation Fresh Start. She thinks that's a shame: 'There's got to be a change in the way we see these kids. We shouldn't view them as a threat but as young people we care about, with potential.'
Laura Dresser of COWS agrees. 'It has to be a systemic, community response,' she says. 'It starts with awareness. Then we need more coordination, more resources, more money.'
In response to such appeals, Dane County United Way is now forming a task force to look at the problem of 'disconnected and violent youth.' Darrell Bazzell, a UW-Madison vice chancellor and former head of the state Department of Natural Resources, has agreed to be co-chair. Barry, though disappointed that 'they feel the need to have so much of the focus on violent youth,' is heartened by this development.
'We hope this will provide a forum and prove a catalyst for needed change in public policy here,' says Barry. 'The foremost hurdle is, of course, getting agreement from our political, institutional and business leadership that the problem is real, acute and requiring of immediate attention.'