July 8, 2013

Success of students earns Portland program new grant

LearningWorks gets $975,000 to fund the classes and skills taught by Youth Building Alternatives.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A program to help at-risk students finish their high school education got a two-year, $975,000 federal Department of Labor grant, in part because of its high success rate, officials say.

click image to enlarge

Twenty young men and women took part in a graduation ceremony from Youth Building Alternatives on June 28, 2013. The alternate education system helps dropouts get their GED certificates and more.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Andrew Annis was among those graduating from LearningWorks' Youth Building Alternatives on June 28, 2013.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

"LearningWorks is one of the few programs that's been funded three (two-year) cycles in a row," said Ethan Strimling, chief executive officer of LearningWorks, which runs education programs for at-risk students, immigrants and low-income families.

The grant is for the Youth Building Alternatives program, which was launched in 1994 and also receives about $300,000 annually from the state Department of Corrections. The program helps students pursue their GED while learning construction skills.

"This is a wonderful program," said Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette, standing Monday in front of the program's workshop, which includes a partially built "house" with electrical panels, roofing and siding that get torn down and rebuilt with each graduating class.

The students also go into the community to rehabilitate low-income housing or build salt sheds or garden structures at schools and housing projects, said Nick Desouza, one of the instructors.

Students in the program must be between 16 and 24 years old and must have dropped out of school or be on probation. Most enroll in the program for about nine months, and about 80 percent get their GED, Strimling said.

According to the group's most recent annual report, 88 percent of the program graduates earned their GED and 96 percent were placed in jobs or post-secondary education programs.

LearningWorks, which runs several other programs, had $2.9 million in revenue last year. The Youth Building Alternatives budget ranges between $450,000 and $700,000, depending on the number of students enrolled, Strimling said.

"We get students from every walk of life," he said. "These are kids for whom a traditional school day does not work."

Brittany Whittemore, 18, said she's hoping to get her GED through the Youth Building Alternatives program before heading to college. She started the program last October.

"It's better," said Whittemore, of South Portland. She said her high school was too big. Each Youth Building Alternatives class is usually about 40 students.

Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the program draws on support locally, from the state and from the federal government.

"This is a good day for the state when the Department of Labor puts a stamp on what we're doing in Portland," he said. "This program is successful, it's accountable and the outcomes are terrific."

LearningWorks expanded the program earlier this year, launching a Biddeford Youth Building program in February.

The Youth Building Alternatives program in Portland is year-round, but operates for half-days during the summer.

"What this program says is that we're not going to allow anyone to fall through the cracks," Strimling said. "That's this program's greatest strength."

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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