Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Notes from the Case Files: Learning by Doing

By Jesseca P. Timmons, a case writer in Entrepreneurial Studies and Social Entrepreneurship for The Lewis Institute at Babson College.

In the fascinating six-month process of writing a case on Year Up, we learned Year Up is very different from most other organizations which focus on inner city youth. Unlike Teach for America or City Year, Year Up does not place educated young people in impoverished areas to work or volunteer—rather, it identifies motivated at-risk young people within those under-privileged areas and offers them a way out of poverty through life and skills training. These in turn, lead to education and better employment. Gerald Chertavian explained “There are only two acceptable outcomes for the program: working part-time and going to school full-time, or going to school full-time and working part-time.

Selection of students for Year Up is complicated and focuses on identifying students with the best fit—meaning they have an acceptable number of risk factors in their lives, but not so many risk factors that entering the program is unrealistic (analysis indicates that three separate factors is the limit for most young people). When we spoke to Gerald, he reeled off a sobering list of the risk factors which affect his students, including family dysfunction, addiction or alcohol dependency, past trouble with the law, immigration status, language barrier, past abuse, mental health issues or severe debt, and explained that a team of social workers works closely with every group of young people.

In their first six months at Year Up, students learn what the program refers to as the “ABC Skills”—those focusing on “Attitude, Behavior and Communication”. In the second half of the year, students are placed in professional internships, also with a high level of support, or what Gerald describes as “a caring adult looking in their eyes on a regular basis”. While working at their internships, students receive college credit and a weekly stipend, which is treated as a real-world paycheck: pay is docked if students are late or do not show up for class or for work. The program is strict, and for many of the young people, it is the first time they have been held highly accountable. Gerald describes the expectations:

Our young adults sign a contract with us that is very specific about expectations—and those expectations are simulating a professional working environment. That first six months is an intense period—70-85% of students will make it through the first six months without firing themselves—they fire themselves by choosing not to meet the expectations of the program. We don’t fire anyone, but we have zero tolerance for threatening behavior, drug abuse–and zero tolerance means zero tolerance—there are no warnings. Students are well aware of what our policies are, and they make choices. We are happy to tell them what the consequences of those choices are. We will always treat them as adults–we are not authorities and we are not parents. They must take responsibility for their own actions.

Students who meet the program’s expectations in the first six months are placed in a professional internship at a white-collar employer, such as Google, American Express, MicroSoft or BioGen. At the end of the year, students have the option of staying on at their employer full or part-time while enrolling in school. Recent success stories from Year Up’s website include students who have stayed on in financial services and IT jobs and quickly climbed the ladder—all thanks to what Gerald calls “a hand UP, not a hand OUT”.

Next month, I will write about Gerald’s visit to Babson and what our MBA students thought of Gerald’s mission and his amazing organization.