J. Weston Phippen

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Washington, D.C.—At 6:30 a.m. Daniel Childs opens his eyes and lifts his head from bed with hopes to rise above what he calls his "consistency problem." The temperature outside is exactly freezing. Without a car, it will take the 21-year-old more than an hour on the bus to reach his first week of GED orientation class, with transfers in the icy wind. The two-bedroom apartment he shares with an aunt and two cousins is silent. The room is dark. He is so far from what he hopes to become, and with change comes the possibility of failure. So many reasons to lie back down.

Two months ago, Childs walked into the D.C. ReEngagement Center searching for help. There, he found Dana Simpson, an intake counselor with a permanent smile who greeted him with a hug.

Childs told her he'd grown up in a rough, poor neighborhood. When he was still young, his father left—"just lost interest," Childs's mother puts it. Then his mom lost her job. Then they lost the family home. His little sister and mother moved into an apartment seven miles away, and Childs shuttled between friends and relatives. About this time, as he entered high school, Childs realized that the guys who wore the new shoes and fresh clothes didn't head off to punch time cards every morning. They stood in the streets all day—sold drugs or robbed homes.

Life out there seemed like the rap lyrics he'd grown up on. Childs joined them.

When Childs dropped out of school in 2008, about 5 million young men and women were considered "disconnected," in the category of 16- to 24-year-olds who neither attend school nor work. By 2011, after the recession, the number of disconnected youth had increased by more than 800,000. 

The Riverside-San Bernardino area claims the highest percentage of disconnected youths, followed by Detroit, Charlotte, and Phoenix, according to a 2013 study by Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council. In Washington, D.C., like many of those other cities, young black and Latino youths drop out or are unemployed at rates two and three times higher than their white counterparts. As the country's minority population grows, this trend poses huge risks to our global competitiveness. It threatens to immensely expand social spending—each disconnected youth costs $755,900 over a lifetime. And because already one of every four young black men who drop out ends up behind bars, it also threatens to condemn more black youths to prison.

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President Obama has called this disconnection crisis both a "moral issue" and "the economic issue of our time." Washington launched the ReEngagement Center last fall to address the crisis, with leaders calling it part of the city's "second-chance system" for out-of-school youth. The questions are the same, whether puzzled over by White House policymakers or ReEngagement staff members like Simpson: What drives this disconnection? And how can we fix it? 

At any one moment, the challenge can be as simple and as complicated as getting one young man back on track to earn a high school equivalency degree. 

Lately, when Childs pictured his future, he saw a telephone pole wrapped in t-shirts that memorialized a murdered friend. He thought of a deathbed promise to his father.

So he spent the month of November getting a new Social Security card and birth certificate, to replace the old ones that had been lost in numerous moves. In December, he found the ReEngagement Center online. The next day, he walked into Simpson's hug and told her, "I'm trying to get into school." A placement test told him that while he excelled in writing, he struggled with math, and because the center doesn't host classes, Simpson drove him to GED programs around the city. Childs signed up for one in Southeast, where a close friend of his happens to work. As Childs waited for classes to begin, he spent nearly five days a week at the center, wary of falling into old habits. 

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Up to six months of classes and tests in four subjects stood between Childs and his GED. But the most immediate battle required that he show up. Every weekday morning, at 9:30 a.m, for three hours. First to a week of orientation, followed by his first week of classes.

On this first day of orientation, as the clock nears nine, Simpson stands from her chair at the ReEngagement Center. Childs had told her he'd meet here before orientation. She glances at her phone. Childs has no cell.

Behind the ReEngagement Center runs the Anacostia River. To one side, the neighborhoods are mostly white, populated by people with money, whose kids had unrecognized advantages. To the other side of the river, black teens weigh survival against a seat in class.

* * * 

For a few anxious moments, Simpson sits in her chair as her row of solar-powered bobble heads nod back. She walks to the basement from the glass building's second floor, eases into a government sedan, and heads south on Minnesota Avenue. In the passenger seat rides a 21-year-old mother named Bria Crawford.

Crawford dropped out of high school her senior year. She'd been expelled for fighting. She only needed a few credits to graduate, but her pride and embarrassment wouldn't allow her to transfer. Now she couldn't find a job, and she couldn't pay rent. Along with her two-year-old daughter, Crawford lives in a Quality Inn funded by the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center. A social worker there referred her to the ReEngagement Center, where Simpson asked what was stopping her from finishing her degree.

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It is often small barriers that derail re-enrollment, and since the ReEngagement Center opened last fall under the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, it has formed connections with citywide social services. When a young man or woman walks in, Simpson or one of her colleagues can direct them to housing, food, child care, mental-health services, educational programs. The Covenant House in Southeast is one such resource, and after a 15-minute drive, Crawford and Simpson walk into the lobby.

As they do, Childs stands and says hello. He'd arrived 30 minutes early. Simpson says nothing, just smiles and hugs him. Then she leads Crawford down the hallway.

At 9:30, Childs unceremoniously walks up the stairs and into a classroom for orientation. Six students, all African-American, sit at three rows of gray tables. Childs wears a puffy black coat over his tattooed arms and a beanie pulled down to his soft brown eyes. He signs the roll and sits in the middle. Arms on his lap, back straight, he looks ahead, where two teachers write the day's lecture on a whiteboard:

  • conflict resolution
  • conflict management
  • dress code

"What's a recent conflict you got into and how did you solve it?" one teacher asks.

The teacher glances at the three women in the room. "Come on, moms."

"I have problems every day," a young woman in the front row says.

"How about coping skills," the other teacher asks. "How about just closing your eyes and going to that calm place?"

"My mind wanders too much," the woman says. "It's like a chatterbox. I wouldn't be able to just close my eyes. I be thinking about too much."

"OK," the teacher says, "what are the problems you had in other school settings that made you wind up here?"

"Skipping class," Childs offers. "You know, smoking, hanging out with the wrong crowd. Not doing school work. Getting bad grades. Or it could be, like, something going on at home."

Childs's father left his nine-year-old son a love of rap, particularly of Tupac Shakur—and not much else.

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His mother was working as a special-education aide when she lost her job. Next went the home with the rose bushes his grandma had planted. Childs's mother and younger sister moved into an already-crowded apartment with relatives. Childs moved in with his grandma. He lived there for a year and the two grew close, until he found his grandma dead on the floor from a heart attack. "He called crying and screaming," Martina King, his mother, says. He stayed with friends and relatives, and one day in class as a sophomore, Childs and his best friend, Saquan, got into a fight with a teacher. Together, they walked out of high school and into the streets. Childs turned to what he calls "the microwave life," where he believed money would come quick and easy, robbing homes or selling drugs.

His mother had finished high school, and that led to a life of hard work with little to show. To Childs, money was the problem. Also the solution. And the surest way to that seemed to be through music. The rappers he loved grew up like him. They wrote about a life like his. They had money.

Childs reconnected with his father just before he died of cancer. He promised to straighten up, yet he still thought of education as a means to support his way out through music.

He says none of this in class. It just balances atop those last words, "Something going on at home."

"Yeah," the teacher says. "Personal stuff."

After class, Childs sits in the lunchroom and spreads his feet wide. He leans back and his puffy coat reveals his sweatshirt, which he has had specially printed with the rap label he hopes to start: "Straight Up D.C." Below it are three letters: "G.M.C."

"Get Money Crew," he smiles.

The next day of orientation covers how to effectively communicate problems, then soft skills like workplace etiquette, then how the staff will distribute bus tokens. By Friday, Childs sits with his head in his hand while the teacher asks, "Tell me what it is you expect to get from Covenant House?"

Employment, a student says. Financial stability, says another. Responsibility.

Childs has learned that Covenant House owns recording equipment, and already he has asked the staff to use it. When the teacher calls on Childs, he responds, "I just want to expand my music horizons."

The teacher pauses.

"Also, I want to get better at math," he adds.

The teacher writes it on the board.

* * *

Childs arrives early to the first day of class.

At 9:30, the same six students take their chairs, and Childs again slides into the middle row.

The teacher, an older white man, writes "a+b=c" on the board, for a lesson plan that will range from elementary math to algebra.

"Don't be afraid to count out loud if you want to," the teacher tells everyone. "You might be embarrassed, but you'll be embarrassed with a GED."

After five minutes, a student walks out. A man in the back row slips in an earbud. A woman clears her throat. She spits into the garbage. She spits again. And again.

"We'll also learn why in my time, they weren't called decimal numbers," the teacher says, pausing a bit for dramatic effect. "They were called Arabic numbers."

Childs leans his head against his hand. At 10:50, the class breaks. Only three students return to discuss decimals and fractions, and by 11:20 everyone but Childs has vanished. Now the teacher lectures about the Moorish conquest of Spain, then something about Alexander the Great and the Mongols. Finally, the lesson weaves back to numbers. "So we call everything between zero and nine a digit, because what's another name for fingers?" the teacher poses to the class, which is Childs. "And how many fingers do you have?"

"Ten," Childs answers.

"Exactly."

Childs walks downstairs and slumps into a seat in the lunchroom, an extension of the lobby with six round tables and vending machines. His childhood friend, Saquan, who he dropped out of school with and who now works at Covenant House, walks near with a laptop.

Saquan opens the laptop and scrolls through a list of their songs, recorded in his homemade studio. Some of the titles read, "Club Shit," "Out the Mud," and another that begins, "Time to get this money... money, money, money"..."

As the track winds up, Childs raps along and bobs in the chair.

Three other men hear the music and join the table. Partly bragging, Saquan tells them he's exhausted because Childs and another guy were at his house all night in his studio.

"You seeing me here?" Saquan asks the student. "I be drained. They do nothing but rap. That's all they do."

''Cause we trying to get rich," Childs says from over his shoulder.

"And they don't want me to get no sleep," Saquan says. "They say, 'Man, what you doing?' I say, 'I got to go to work in the morning.'"

Saquan, 21, earned his GED a little more than a year ago. He first came to Covenant House for job training. "He was extremely raw," says Cliff Rogers, who coordinates Covenant's work-readiness program. "No employment. No résumé. No soft skills."

Rogers helped Saquan get his first job bagging groceries. A few days later, Saquan wanted to quit. It was too far, he disliked his coworkers. Rogers told him no, first he had to find another job. Saquan ground it out until he found one, and later when he complained about that job, Rogers stayed on him until he found another. He eventually became the first former student hired full-time at Covenant House, where he answers phones and cleans the building. 

"Now he's really understanding that work is a commitment," Rogers says.

The music rolls into a chorus.

Childs's first day of school had felt nothing like rap lyrics. It had not been quick and easy. The students sit around the table, and the chorus sounds like a mantra. "GMC, GMC we up now..."

On Tuesday, Childs again arrives early.

On Wednesday, three students learn how to solve for "x." Childs is not one of them. He doesn't show the next day, either.

On Friday, still no Childs.

* * *

The gap is, and is not, about race.

In scholarly papers, the gap is about poor neighborhoods and residential segregation. Housing prices push lower-income families away from employment areas and into neighborhoods that lack effective public transportation. This creates islands where unemployment is common, higher education is scarce, and poverty is standard.

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Russell Krumnow, managing director of Opportunity Nation, says in America we'd all like to believe that a person can come from nothing and rise to the top, that success is about the individual. But the reality is that "circumstances and zip code of birth have way too much impact on how high you can climb on that ladder of opportunity."

The gap is largely about poverty, and black communities across America face double the poverty rates of whites, double the unemployment. On the ground floor, to Saquan, that looks like this:

"Think about this, you're around 10 people, and everybody goes to college—you're going to be inspired to go to college, right? If you're around 50 people, and 10 sell drugs, 15 rob, 10 locked up, and [the others] don't do nothing but smoke all day, where is the inspiration coming from? And when you see mom struggling, first thing you think is, 'Let me get some quick money so she won't struggle for the moment.'"

"I was taught to take care and provide," he says. "That's it. To make sure your mother is good, your brother is good, sister is good, and your little cousins. So my safety was never really my concern. As long as I survived enough to make sure that they're good, to see them grow up—fuck my life. That's how I carried it. And just now, I'm really starting to realize how valuable life is."

* * *

Simpson hears nothing from Childs all week. Meanwhile, lawyers bring their young clients into the center; a staff member speaks to law-enforcement agencies around the city. Into the center walk single mothers, shy young men, teens with anger issues, the homeless, and those from broken homes. Nearly all are black. Nearly all from one side of the river.

On Thursday of the second week, Childs again walks into Covenant House. Rogers, the manager, pulls him aside.

Where has he been? Rogers asks. Why didn't he at least call?

Childs says he was sick. He had no phone. Nobody's number. And when he got better, he'd spent a few late nights working on music and was too tired.

Change is a process, and Rogers knows this. Any time you ask a person to rearrange their habits, it'll be difficult. How often has Childs's own life ever been consistent? How often has it been dependable? Childs leaves the office for a seat in class.

The following Friday, Childs takes a bus from Covenant House to the ReEngagement Center, as he has not seen Simpson in three weeks. He boards the bus with Crawford, the woman who rode with Simpson on Childs's first day of orientation. 

They sit beside each other, not saying much at first. Crawford asks if he has used the Covenant House recording equipment yet.

"No," Childs says. "I was going to, but Mr. Rogers said I got to focus on my school work."

"Yeah," Crawford says, staring out the window.

"I'm trying to get all this going," Childs says. "It's just—it's going to take time, you know?"

Next America's Education coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the New Venture Fund.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.

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