Living in one of New Orleans’ toughest housing projects, life was already challenging for Darren Alridge. But after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, life became even more difficult. He attended six different high schools over the next three years, and with just one year left before graduation, he dropped out and got into trouble.
Alridge’s future could have been written off like too many other young black males who find themselves on the other side of the law. But a court order to complete his GED or face jail time connected him to the Youth Empowerment Project’s (YEP) New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth (NOPLAY) program – a lifeline of sorts for Alridge and more than 3,000 other students since its founding in 2006.
“They really engaged me and got on me about things I needed to do to better myself,” Alridge said, even though he was hesitant at first. “It was like finding the loving parents you’d always been looking for.”
YEP’s NOPLAY program provides GED and basic literacy instruction to out-of-school youth and young adults between the ages of 16-24 in the Greater New Orleans region. They are the largest adult education provider in the city that specializes in providing literacy and educational services to this population. The Cowen Institute, a think-tank at Tulane University that seeks to eliminate the challenges impeding the success of K-12 education in New Orleans and beyond, estimates that there are between 14,000 and 16,000 youth in New Orleans who are neither working nor in school. Jerome Jupiter, YEP’s director of educational services said many other adult education providers don’t always have the willingness or resources to engage with such youth; however, YEP understands the importance of investing in youth and ensuring they have access to the opportunities that many others often take for granted.
“These kids are our future. Often, I think that the barriers they face are not because they don’t want better – it’s because of a broken school system, poverty, a plethora of things,” said Jupiter. “If we want to have an impact and reduce crime and increase a skilled labor force, then we have to invest in the front end, because it’s much more expensive on the back end, and incarceration is not the answer.”
NOPLAY offers students several different class options, including a drop-in center geared toward those students who cannot commit to a managed class schedule; fast-tracked classes for students who are close to taking the GED examination; and the Village, a subset of NOPLAY geared toward meeting the more intensive needs of the program’s younger students, ages 16-21. In addition to educational services, YEP works to help NOPLAY students mitigate many of the circumstances that may have led them to be unsuccessful in a traditional high school setting, including supportive services, mentoring and assistance with basic needs.
“They helped me shift my mindset. It’s a place where you can redeem yourself,” Alridge said. “If you can’t make it through high school, they help you to find another way.”
NOPLAY’s impact on students has been staggering: in 2011-12, 84 percent of its students improved in math, 77 percent in language arts and 64 percent in reading. NOPLAY is one of YEP’s seven programs that support more than 1,000 youth annually, ages 7-24, with additional services including assistance with transitioning into post-secondary education and employment opportunities; job readiness training; after-school enrichment; and other efforts including a holistic set of client-centered ancillary wrap-around services that are unique to each youth and their individual circumstances.
The NOPLAY has grown from serving 25 students in its first year to more than 800 people today. Alridge is one of 226 students to earn a GED through the program. He was also NOPLAY’s 100th graduate, and was profiled around this milestone in 2011 in a feature in The Times-Picayune.
In the past two years, nearly 130 NOPLAY graduates have also received transitional services from a full-time transition coach, including college and enrollment advising, goal monitoring support, job readiness skills training and volunteer opportunities. Forty-six have enrolled in post-secondary education (retention rates were 100 percent in 2011-12 and 89 percent in 2012-13), and YEP works with them to find scholarships and grants and follow up with ongoing support. NOPLAY partners with local institutions and college readiness programs, and works to give students the ability to dual enroll in career training and/or post-secondary educational programs. Program officials say affordable education is essential to graduates pursing a college education.
Alridge was also the first program graduate to be hired by YEP as a full-time staff member. Since earning his GED in 2011, Alridge went from part- to full-time at YEP, and now works with students in the after-school and NOPLAY programs that he’s able to relate to and support. Jupiter says that youth in the program can easily relate to a mentor like Alridge, and because he’s familiar with the environments and challenges many young people are facing, they can see his success and be inspired to find their own. With his job, Alridge receives health benefits for himself and his family, as well as access to the organization’s retirement plan. In addition to Alridge, YEP employs one other full-time NOPLAY graduate, and nine part-time graduates who serve as para-instructors. The organization values helping its graduates find careers or a career path and also has recently hired a full-time career developer, who is working closely with local businesses to assess employment needs and develop formalized career tracks.
In addition to his role at YEP, Alridge is a youth representative on New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s NOLA for Life Gang Violence Reduction Strategy, a public speaker on the issues that impact young black males in the city, and a father to a 2-year-old son.
“I have a passion for giving back,” he said. “And I want to help young people turn the negative things in their lives into positives.”