There’s an expression in parts of Washington, D.C., hardest hit by poverty: “When you’re 14, you’re grown.” Low-income high school students are often on their own making decisions about education and employment. Statistics confirm the grim situation: Only 43 percent of public school youth graduate from high school and only 29 percent go on to secondary education. Those who start poor in D.C. tend to stay that way.
Like many others, Charles Reid’s prospects were uncertain until a program called Urban Alliance Foundation (UAF) stepped in when Reid was in the ninth grade. Led by Veronica Nolan (Col ’97), the foundation offers low-income students tools to make inroads into an otherwise difficult professional world. High school students enroll in a month-long training program with the foundation, which Nolan calls “the longest interview of these kids’ lives.”
The students learn phone etiquette, interview preparation and other skills needed in professional settings. The foundation then matches them with an employer, where they work three hours a day, four days a week, returning to the foundation on Fridays for life-skills workshops. “Oftentimes when they come to us they have very little knowledge of what kinds of career opportunities are out there, so we place them,” Nolan says. Students also get an on-site mentor—a professional role model—as well as a case manager to help guide their decision-making.
Reid says the foundation’s presence was unique in his neighborhood. “It was very seldom that people came into the inner city schools to teach those job skills,” he says. Reid was assigned to Fannie Mae, where he discovered a love of public speaking that inspired him to major in mass communications at Virginia Union University.
The ultimate goal, according to Nolan, is to help low-income youth lead lives of self-sufficiency, giving them the opportunities and support that enable them to become productive citizens. And program participants tend to succeed: 99 percent graduate from high school and 88 percent have gone on to college.
Students are placed at an array of organizations, from the World Bank to XM Radio to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office. They typically take on administrative roles, helping out in accounting offices, human resources, marketing and research. Employers say they benefit from hosting student workers. According to Nolan, mentors “love the opportunity to volunteer while at work,” and many employers see their student workers return to become full-time employees.
Nolan came to UAF after four years teaching in D.C. public schools with Teach for America. She was hired as program director, rising to become executive director within her first year. UAF has seen tremendous growth under her leadership, expanding its reach from 40 students in a single high school, to 300 students across 16 high schools, including a recent expansion to Baltimore. Since her arrival, Nolan has touched the lives of more than 1,000 students.
Now a high school counselor in Richmond, Va., Reid still feels awed by the foundation’s deep investment in youth. Friends from UAF attended his high school football games, and he still stays in touch with his Fannie Mae mentor. “My experience with Urban Alliance changed a lot for me,” Reid says. “I saw that there are people willing to help you as long as you’re willing to help yourself.”