Caniyah Robinson and her best friend, Tiffany Tobin, both 18, got their first sweet taste of celebrity as sophomores in high school. Tiffany was already an eminent personality at Brooklyn’s Freedom Academy when Caniyah transferred in. Together, their stars shot up. “Everybody wanted to talk to us,” says Caniyah. “There’s a power of being known – it kind of takes your head to another place.”

Wherever that place was, it’s clear that it wasn’t through the doors of a classroom: “Mostly we ran the halls, talked to boys, bothered the principal,” says Tiffany. Like all good celebrities, they mastered the art of the dramatic entrance (“usually around lunch time”), and they always left their public wanting more – by the time she was a junior, says Caniyah, “I was going to school maybe once or twice a month, if I knew I had something cute to wear.”

It wasn’t until what should have been their senior year, after logging thousands of hours in front of the TV and several F’s on their transcripts – far from any hope of graduation – that it occurred to Caniyah and Tiffany that what was cute at 17 might not be so charming ten years down the road. “We both looked in the mirror and we didn’t like what we saw,” Tiffany recalled recently. “What can you do with your life if you don’t have a high school diploma?”

It’s a good question – one faced by a cohort of young people fast growing across the country, and even faster in New York. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the city estimates that somewhere close to 160,000 – or nearly one in six – New Yorkers between the ages of 16 and 21 are neither in school nor employed in a legal job. Most of them started out poor, and their future economic prospects are grim: According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, 54 percent of young adults without diplomas were jobless during an average month in 2008, and 40 percent were jobless for an entire year.

Kids drop or fall out of the mainstream education system for a long list of reasons – most commonly because they need to work, have a baby, or are caring for another family member, according to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). Whatever the back story, it’s in everyone’s best interest to help out-of-school youth get educated and employed. When researchers at the Community Service Society did the math, they found that each New Yorker who doesn’t finish high school costs the city treasury nearly $135,000 more than he pays in taxes, for expenses such as incarceration or shelter. Those with just a high school degree pay an average of $190,000 more into city coffers than is expended on their behalf – making each high school diploma or GED worth a grand total of $325,000 to the city.

That’s why a portion of money from the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) – the country’s main funding stream for job training services – is designated for programs aimed at getting so-called “disconnected youth” back into school or the labor market. This year, New York City is in line to receive nearly $14 million in WIA funding for out-of-school youth programs.

It’s a big chunk of cash, and one that both city officials and youth advocates agree must be used strategically, since there isn’t likely to be a great deal more coming down the road. That’s where the consensus ends. When the DYCD put out a call last month for grant applications, detailing just what kinds of programs will be eligible for the new WIA funds, the Request for Proposals was met with dismay by a vocal group of advocates. They say the new programming requirements are misguided, overly prescriptive in their staffing and structural demands, and – most importantly – they force service providers to cherry-pick their participants, leaving the young people with the greatest needs behind.

Toward a job, or a career?

The most traditional workforce programs provide straightforward vocational training – say, an auto mechanics certification course. But many of the young people who are theoretically eligible for WIA-funded programs are also desperately deficient in basic educational skills. (In NYC, the majority of 16-21-year-olds without a high school diploma read at somewhere between a 4th and 8th grade level.) And so WIA’s youth money can also be used to fund programs that improve their participants’ math and literacy skills, teach GED preparation classes or usher young people into college.

Once the federal money is doled out, it’s up to local Workforce Investment Boards and municipalities to decide the balance between job training and education programs in their jurisdictions, choosing which particular strings will be attached to each round of cash. Most administrators find themselves trying to stretch limited resources across a large and needy population, and that’s where, in New York City, a philosophical rift has opened wide: Should service providers spend more time and money on getting young people immediate access to the workforce, or on helping them pursue educational opportunities that might increase their range of options for the future?

Lazar Treschan, director of youth policy for the Community Service Society of New York, frames the question like this: “Do we want to say that we’re getting young people into jobs, or that we’re preparing them for careers?” Treschan serves as the co-chair of the Campaign for Tomorrow’s Workforce, an advocacy coalition that has spent the past two years pushing the city to move away from a jobs-first approach to out-of-school youth programming.

In the Campaign’s view, the key to serving disconnected youth is flexibility: Fund programs that can meet young people at very low skill levels and give them job training for the short term, but also create educational opportunities for the future. By way of example, Treschan cites The Door, which runs one of the city’s most successful career and GED programs for out-of-school youth.

It’s also where Caniyah and Tiffany ended up, once they decided to launch their fresh start. Since last November, they’ve been showing up – every day – for a combination of academic catch-up and general job preparation. Along with the definition of a pronoun, they’ve learned to write resumes, prepare for interviews and resolve conflicts in the workplace. And they’re both planning for college – Caniyah’s got her eye on a degree in fashion design at Clark Atlanta University; Tiffany wants to get her nursing certification from ASA, the local professional institute. “We would never be thinking about that if we hadn’t ended up here,” says Tiffany.

More and more, job market numbers suggest that those degrees are Caniyah’s and Tiffany’s best shot at economic security: DYCD, which administers WIA money in New York, describes completion of a vocational certificate program or one year of college as a key predictor of whether a young person will be able to earn family-supporting wages. Through the current recession, people with less than a high school education lost jobs at nearly twice the rate of high school graduates and more than 10 times the rate of those who had finished college.

Alternative Education

That’s why Treschan, from the Campaign for Tomorrow’s Workforce, was surprised when he read DYCD’s current RFP, which specifically requires that service providers focus on training young participants in a single occupation. The new round of WIA grants are performance-based, meaning that providers will have to prove that they’ve met a certain number of outcomes before they receive the final 15 percent of their pay. The RFP talks at length about the importance of educational assistance for low-skilled youth, but there is no money riding on the ability to increase participants’ literacy or numeracy. Providers will get paid for their work if they successfully place young people in jobs; not if they teach them to read or to add.

“It’s not in line with the federal requirements,” says Treschan, “and it’s not in line with what we know about the workforce. How far are you going to go if you’re functionally illiterate? Maybe you do get a job – how long are you going to keep it?”

In accordance with department policy, DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav declined to give an interview before the grant applications are due on Feb. 12. , but DYCD did send an addendum to its prospective applicants in response to the Campaign’s concerns, affirming that it “seeks programs that will successfully integrate educational services and workforce development,” and that “successful proposals will offer a blend of meaningful activities to advance participants’ ability to pursue post-secondary education and advanced training.” In fact, according to the department, their programs already do achieve significant educational outcomes: Data from 2007-08 indicate that 30 percent of WIA-funded youth program participants identified as dropouts went on to attain a GED, and 10 percent of all participants went on to attend college.

The youth advocates are not convinced that those numbers indicate DYCD is on the right track. Sierra Stoneman-Bell is the co-director of the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition, and another co-chair of the Campaign for Tomorrow’s Workforce. “The fact that providers end up getting so many low-skilled young people who need and want educational services,” she says, “means that the program should focus more, not less, on education, since those are the young people that walk in the door, even when the programs are incentivized to take others.”

It’s that question of incentives that gets to the heart of the advocates’ concerns: If programs are paid according to their success at getting young people into jobs, then they face a great deal of pressure to accept those participants who are most ready to enter the workforce. "It's not that DYCD says you can't take young people with reading levels below 8th grade," says Stoneman-Bell, “but providers are put in a difficult position of having to decide whether to risk their program outcomes (and a portion of their funding) by accepting young people who are unlikely to make enough progress within 12 months, or to turn away those young people who need the most help.”

Essentially, the charge is one of “creaming” the easiest-to-serve participants off the top of a larger population – an accusation that’s not unfamiliar in the world of Bloomberg administration service provision. It’s been a frequent critique about the programs of the poverty-fighting Center for Economic Opportunity, for example. The problem in this case, say the advocates, is that the young people left behind stand little chance of finding help elsewhere.

“We have this huge need for basic skills in New York City,” says Lazar Treschan. “There’s never enough money to do it right. Here you have $14 million, and the city is just wasting the opportunity.”

- Abigail Kramer

Disclosure: The Community Service Society of New York, mentioned above, is the owner of City Limits.