Grants to USM Muskie School target 'opportunity youth'

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PORTLAND — The University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service has received a second round of grants from the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund to reconnect young people who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market to education and employment.

Those 6.7 millions individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 are commonly referred to as “opportunity youth.”

OYIF is managed by the The Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions.

Martin Zanghi, director of youth development at the Muskie School, said the school initially had a one-year planning grant, and is now into a three- to four-year implementation grant, which will total around $500,000 over the next three years.

“It’s really to work with organizations that help young people around education, employment and connections to their communities,” Zanghi said. “And we’re talking about some of the most disconnected young people in the state.”

In addition to USM, 18 other schools across the country were recipients of these grants last year, along with two other communities that received multi-year awards. USM was one of four rural recipients of the grant, and will focus on issues like lack of transportation and limited employment opportunities that prohibit youth. 

“We’re working presently in Cumberland and York County to try to help this population of young people that we’re focusing on, which is youth in foster care, youth in the juvenile justice system and youth who are at risk of getting pushed out of the educational setting,” Zanghi said.

Zanghi said a lot of the young people they’re focusing on don’t have the economic support or resources to achieve their goals. He said Maine ranks as the “highest percentage of  disconnected youth among all of the New England states,” and the goal is to create the pathways for these young people to succeed.

Policy associate Emily Thielmann said there has been a “convergence of interest” in the issue of disconnected youth. She said 17 percent of youth across the country are neither working nor in school.

“The concern is if they’re not doing anything now, what’s that going to mean down the road for the economy but also for those young people in their lives as they try to build them without having that credible window of education and work experience?” Thielmann said.

Thielmann said that even though Portland isn’t necessarily a “rural” place, the strategies used to reach the disconnected are different than those used in bigger areas like New York City or Baltimore, namely because of the lack of public transportation, along with an “undercurrent of basic needs that affects this population.”

“The other thing is just economic issues are just pretty bleak, and that’s reported on all the time in Maine and nationally, but our growth is a little slower and that really impacts this population of youth who might not have the skills or the clear connection into an industry, sector, job, or something to study,” Thielmann said.

She said they are trying to “build a culture” where other organizations focus on bigger picture missions rather than “chunked out ways.”

“What we’ve been finding … is that kids really are slipping between the cracks in transitions,” Thielmann said. “A lot of what we’re talking about is structurally and culturally how we can get organizations to work more like a system.”

She said this will make it more clear for young people as to the next step in their goals, or how to get back on track if they leave school for a while.

In southern Maine, there has been a predominant focus on Portland and Sanford, where projects like ConnectEd and Sanford Strong Coalition are working to improve opportunities for young people. Both places have been recipients of Nellie Mae Foundation grants to better connect students with pathways to continuing education and careers.

“The goal is to ensure that (these) young people, like any young person, have the opportunities, the resources, the relationships, the skills to get access to education through high school, post secondary education, some credentials, to really get a career,” Zanghi said.

Zanghi said these are young people who are getting “pushed out,” rather than dropping out. They want to be successful and to have opportunities, but just don’t have the means.

“The bottom line is for many of these young people, they’re growing up in poverty, they’ve been exposed to trauma or violence, first generation to perhaps pursue high school graduation or post secondary education,” Zanghi said. 

He said these young people are academically behind because of their life circumstances, and there might not be the right support systems in place for them in their communities.

Zanghi said there are certain strategies that they plan to use, such as “high school bridging programs,” which help students who are at risk of getting pushed out to ensure post secondary education support.

Over the five-year duration of the Fund, the Aspen Institute plans to give up to $13 million in grants to the 21 OYIF sites and learning partners.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or