Working to help kids see that school makes sense

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Odds are good that four in 10 young people in Durham are not on track to finish high school, complete a post-secondary education, or get a job by age 25.

To help find out why, a community-wide effort to help get kids back on track tasked 25 local high school students to identify the biggest barriers to success for young people.

Those barriers, the students found after a year of querying parents, teachers and other students, are inadequate counseling and racial bias.

“People with better economic resources have more exposure and knowledge about career opportunities,” says Meredythe Holmes, executive director of Made in Durham, a nonprofit that tasked the students and is guiding a community-wide effort to create an “education-to-career” system for young people ages 14 to 24.

The goal is to make sure all Durham kids finish public school and post-secondary study, and get jobs.

Made in Durham, founded in 2015, recruits partner organizations, and helps organize and coordinate the way students get career-related support from those partners — businesses, schools, government and nonprofits.

It raises money for the overall effort, supports its work, and tracks its impact.

Durham’s future depends on making sure more students are ready to take on jobs in a growing and highly competitive local marketplace driven by health and life sciences, says Holmes.

And that will depend on the active and connected participation and support of all its partners, she says.

Students succeed when they see the connection between school and work, she says. Connecting more businesses with students — in and outside school — will help more students see the real-world value of school.

And recruiting more companies to create more internships, apprenticeships and job-shadowing programs will help set more students on the road to good, local jobs, says Holmes, who was founder and CEO of Monarch Services, a Durham-based regional staffing agency.

Made in Durham was the outgrowth of two think-tank studies and a community-wide task force that identified marketplace hurdles young people face in Durham, as well as possible solutions.

Operating with five employees and a board, advisory teams and “action” teams that together field about 100 corporate and community leaders, the nonprofit raised a total of nearly $2.7 million its first three years, and aims to raise nearly $1 million this year.

In an early effort, in 2015, Made in Durham worked with the city, public schools and other partners to more than double — to 200 — the number of jobs in a city summer internship program, and to expand the program beyond mainly jobs in city and county government to include private-sector jobs.

Made in Durham also formed Durham Futures, a collaborative that now includes Durham Public Schools, Durham Tech and two other nonprofits that together provide alternative education for about 250 school dropouts.

Made in Durham was instrumental in a decision by Durham Public Schools, starting with ninth-graders this school year, to require that all students graduate within four years with a career plan and high school diploma.

It also secured funding for two career counselors to work with students served by the four Durham Futures partners serving dropouts.

And it is working to recruit more partners to serve more students , including more companies to send more representatives to schools to talk about careers, and to increase the number of corporate internships, apprenticeships and job-shadowing opportunities.

All those efforts depend on the community collaboration that Made in Durham coordinates, Holmes says.

The year-long study by students on barriers to success, for example, as well as feedback from career and technical-education staff in the public schools, underscored the fact that students have been “falling through the cracks” in a system that could make more effective use of research that shows the value of career advising for all students, she says.

That value can added through requiring career counseling in the schools, and expanding the network of community partners, she says.

Virginia and Colorado have enacted laws requiring career advising, and Made in Durham would like to introduce similar legislation in North Carolina.

For students exposed to career options, and educated about them, schools are relevant, Holmes says.

Without those resources or other motivation, “schools become irrelevant, so many drop out,” she says. “Our goal is to make school relevant.”