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Hard Hat High

Justin Sealie was 18 years old when he dropped out of high school in the Vernon-Central neighborhood of South Los Angeles, three semesters short of graduation. School had always been hard, Justin says, but the recent death of his mother had simply overwhelmed him.

CRCD Academy students and faculty at an award ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall in 2008.

More than three years later he was still living with his grandmother and looking unsuccessfully for work, when a friend told him about a high school run by a community development group and located on a nearby college campus.

“When I saw it, I loved it,” he recalled. 

If it hadn’t been for all the personal attention he found at CRCD Academy, Sealie, now 23, said he probably never would have graduated from high school.

Students at the academy have regular meetings with an advocate who helps them with personal needs, from housing to bus tokens. Small classes provide them with extra attention.

And the most motivated students have the chance to enroll in a program called YouthBuild and earn certification in the construction trade from Los Angeles Trade Technical College, which has the state's top ranked construction program.

The school is the result of an innovative partnership between LA Trade Tech and Vernon-Central’s ecomomic development organization, the Coalition for Responsible Community Development.

CRCD takes a comprehensive approach to stemming the high dropout rates and low employment of local youth by improving the profitability of small business, beautifying the neighborhood and developing affordable housing for youth and other low-income residents.

As part of the training, students help construct housing that CRCD develops for at-risk youth.

As part of the training, students at CRCD Academy help construct housing that CRCD develops for at-risk youth.

“Every time you walk past, it’s like, ‘I built that,’ said Kyle Curtis, 21, whose YouthBuild team restored a YMCA and built a new wing for apartments and community outreach. “Now I can look at a wall and know exactly what’s behind it, like I’m Superman."

In 2008, CRCD became the lead agency in Vernon-Central for Los Angeles LISC's Sustainable Communities initiative, furthering its partnership with LA Trade Tech.

The demand for a program like YouthBuild became apparent during the community planning process, said Noemi Soto, CRCD's director of youth development.

"When we surveyed residents, one of the biggest needs that they identified was workforce development and education," Soto said.

The partnership is paying off. In the past three years, 75 students have earned a pre-apprenticeship construction certificate through  South LA YouthBuild, which is now funded in part by LA LISC. And the CRCD Academy, opened in 2010, has had 67 graduates.

"[CRCD has] helped us tap into that population that is the hardest to serve," said Leticia Barajas, dean of academic affairs at LA Trade Tech. "They knock on doors and do the type of outreach we would never be able to do because they have that legitimacy in the community, they have that trust."

Overcoming roadblocks

More than half of Vernon-Central’s population is under age 25 and the living for many is brutal.

“They’ve been homeless, in the system, coming out of foster care. They have warrants and tickets and haven't had a physical in a long time,” Soto explained..

South LA YouthBuild grew from a five-week program for high school dropouts that included academic skill-building and an introduction to the construction trade.

To help 17- to 25-year-olds get a better foothold in life, CRCD's team of youth advocates works with the young adults one-on-one to help them secure needed services and develop life plans.

Even those who have graduated from high school rarely enroll in college, even at the nearby LA Trade Tech. Signing up for college classes, with all of the forms and deadlines, can be intimidating for youth who have nobody to guide them, Soto explained.

So not long after CRCD opened in 2005, advocates began to walk some of their mentees over to LA Trade Tech and guide them through the enrollment process. Along the way, advocates got to know staff at LA Trade Tech and a partnership grew, Soto said.

One joint project was a five-week program for high school dropouts that included academic skill-building and an introduction to the construction trade.

In the fall of 2008, the collaboration accelerated. Soto approached Barajas about applying together for a YouthBuild grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The federal YouthBuild program helps low-income young adults pursue a GED or high school diploma while gaining job skills as they build affordable housing in their communities.

Soto, Barajas and a team of colleagues came up with a plan to expand the five-week program to nine months so that students could earn both a GED and a certificate in the construction trade.

The program launched in 2009 with a $1.1 million 3-year grant. CRCD opened the high school a year later after realizing that students needed more time to earn diplomas. The academy now enrolls 120 students each year, with 30 selected for South LA YouthBuild. Nearly half the construction trainees are women.

"To be a woman on a construction site was kind of weird," because the professional workers were all men, said graduate La'Niese Wright.

"But they showed us respect. We did get treated like the guys. I liked it a lot."

Building endurance

To win admission to South LA YouthBuild, applicants must first prove themselves by enduring a 12-week course called “Mental Toughness.” Curtis recalls early morning, boot-camp style exercise sessions meant to build the physical endurance needed for construction work. “After Mental Toughness was over, I was saying ‘Amen’ all day.”

CRCD Academy is graduating students who were in danger of dropping out--or had already left school.

Participants also perform community service one Saturday each month and attend weekly leadership training, activities that continue throughout the South LA YouthBuild program. The idea is to polish interpersonal skills needed for a successful career. “Instead of, ‘How you doing bro?’ it’s, ‘How are you today, sir?’” Curtis explains.

As part of his community service requirement, Curtis catered at a community event that exposed him to the professional world. “In my world, people fight, people cuss, all kinds of craziness I have to see every single day,” he said. At the event, he was amazed at the way people spoke to him. “It was, ‘Hi, how are you?’”

YouthBuild also helped Curtis create a resume, which he used to land a job with UPS after earning his high school diploma. Now Curtis plans on working towards his electrical license.

Sealie, meanwhile, said he was inspired by his YouthBuild community service work with 4th and 5th-graders, and now intends to enroll in LA Trade Tech for an associates degree in youth development.

He still visits the academy often to tell new students about his time in YouthBuild: “It made a big difference in my life.”

Posted in Affordable Housing, Los Angeles, Education & Early Learning

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