David Domenici is creating a broad system of supports to give high-risk urban youth the educational, economic, and emotional tools they need for success.
The New Idea
David is fashioning a new approach to improve opportunities for the most at-risk minority youth in the U.S.–young people who are in jail or have dropped out of school or both. In 1997, he founded the See Forever Foundation and launched the Maya Angelou Charter School–arguably the first charter school to recruit kids from jails, drop-out programs, foster care, and other institutions and venues at the bottom of the social ladder. The three major institutions in society today–the educational system, the juvenile corrections system, and the job market–consistently fail these young people. The Maya Angelou Charter School provides a comprehensive approach that includes academics, job training, and counseling in an attempt to fill the cracks left by institutional failure. Students at Maya Angelou must adhere to a rigorous academic schedule focused on mastery of basic skills and technology, attend group and individual counseling sessions with the school social worker or psychologist, and work four to six hours a week at one of the schools' two businesses.
Beyond providing excellent education to young people society has already labeled failures, David's program aims to change the perception that formerly incarcerated youth or school dropouts are "lost" and therefore incapable of success. First, he demonstrates success by educating, graduating, and sending to college the very youth who are deemed unlikely to succeed. Second, he advocates for the spread of his educational model by negotiating with both the D.C. Public Charter School Board and government agencies to expand the program to five schools within the D.C. metro area. Finally, See Forever is launching a new outreach and advocacy campaign using the media and major public and private institutions to broadcast messages about alternative educational models.
To break the cycle of poverty and recidivism for inner-city youth, fundamental changes must be made in four systems directly related to the success of these young people: educational systems, child welfare systems, juvenile corrections, and the job market. The linkages between these systems are key to understanding the root causes of poverty and hopelessness.
The need for reform in urban public schools is clear, but meaningful change has been slow for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, those who can afford it often leave cities or send their children to private schools, while the impoverished remain in public schools. The middle class–left to bear the greatest tax burden–is unlikely to have the wherewithal to meet the tax obligation required to build quality schools for all children. The political will necessary for such extensive reform is not there. "Not only do urban public schools have to contend with monetary and teacher shortages, but in order for students to learn, schools must overcome the tremendous strain poverty puts on its students. Many come to school without pencils or paper; many are hungry or sick; for many, their home life is so stressful that they are too preoccupied for real learning to occur." An observer of urban education wrote, "Education used to be the poor child's ticket out of the slums. Now it's part of the system that traps people in the underclass."
Education statistics show that public schools fail inner-city youth in general and at-risk youth in particular. In Washington, D.C., 96 percent of students attending public schools are nonwhite; 23 percent of these children live in abject poverty; 48 percent live below the poverty level, and 70 percent meet eligibility criteria for free lunches. Eighty percent of these students test below basic levels on the Stanford 9, a widely administered standardized test. Only 53 percent of students enrolled in ninth grade in District public schools graduate four years later.
Statistics regarding incarceration of minorities are also startling. The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice finds that a disproportionate number of youth in correctional facilities are male, poor, and minority. And, while only 15 percent of youth under 18 are African American, that group comprises 44 percent of the detained population, 34 percent of youth processed by the juvenile court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison. In the District of Columbia, almost every youth in detention is a youth of color.
It is impossible to know if this disparity results from poverty or race, but it is clear that an overwhelming number of minorities are involved in the corrections system, making alternatives to the current system necessary. The system tends to process all juveniles in the same way; it either "locks them up or lets them out." In other words, the system fails to distinguish children who need help from those who warrant punishment.
While illiteracy and poor academic performance are not direct causes of delinquency, studies consistently demonstrate a strong link between marginal literacy skills and the likelihood of involvement in the juvenile justice system. The byproduct of poor education and incarceration is unemployment, which leads to dependence on public assistance or recidivism. Teenage unemployment rates demonstrate the reality: 15.9 percent of all teens are unemployed; for African American teenagers the rate rises to 32.7 percent.
David's belief in the potential of court-involved and truant teens has, in his words, "forced many people and institutions working with at-risk students to face the reality that comprehensive programming coupled with mission-driven people can really provide a setting for even the most behind students to grow and develop."
David understands that given the right tools, all young people, even those who have made serious mistakes, have the potential to turn their lives around and be successful. To that end, David has created an institution designed to support youth who have been in jail or who need a "last chance" before they end up there. His aim is to compel the traditional systems, principally the courts and the public education system, to recognize the ability and the potential in every child, regardless of his or her past, and to adjust their programs to help them succeed. But change within a large, urban public school system is difficult, and one can expend a great deal of energy attempting to reform the system and still see little measurable progress. David is going outside the broken systems with his programs to create an alternative.
The simple, triangular structure he devised addresses all of a student's needs in one place–the school provides academic and employment opportunities as well as counseling. Students must be committed to a rigorous program: the school day begins at 8 a.m. with breakfast and ends at 8 p.m. after tutoring. The extended schedule allows the Maya Angelou Charter School to combine a full academic curriculum with group counseling and part-time employment. Students have the option to work at one or the other of See Forever's two businesses: Untouchable Taste Catering, catering all school meals as well as outside events; or the Technology Center, teaching adults and other teens in the community how to use computers. Students are paid, and, through investment classes and mandatory savings programs, they learn skills that are important to becoming self-sustaining adults–saving and planning for the future.
The combination of academics, employment, counseling, and individualized attention is working: the number of students graduating has doubled; and 78 percent of Maya Angelou's graduates are still in college. David plans to increase the number of Maya Angelou Schools in the DC metro area to five in the next five years and create a policy-advocacy component.
Because of the intensive wraparound programming and educational, vocational, and counseling components it offers to neighborhoods, the Department of Public and Assisted Housing views David's program as a model of community development. David's ultimate goal is to have 85 percent of his budget covered by public funds. He is working to garner city and Department of Labor funds to support job-training programs, as well as Medicaid funding for wraparound programming. David's leveraging of public dollars magnifies a unique piece of his strategy: changing policy through the reallocation of funds.
To reach other at-risk populations in isolated, urban communities, David is planning to add an early childhood education component to the Maya Angelou Charter School. He will also add technology training centers for unemployed or underemployed young adults 18-to-25 years of age who have not completed high school or who have been incarcerated. These new components will be added to the Maya Angelou campus as well as to each new school that opens. Each program's specific design will depend on the needs of the community, but all will incorporate the best practices gleaned from the first five years' experience at Maya Angelou: small classes, extended hours, one-on-one tutoring, a family environment, parental involvement, and high expectations. By providing educational and vocational opportunities to all members of a community, David hopes to decrease the number of minorities in the corrections system–both juveniles and adults.
The expansion of a new advocacy initiative will include outreach to the media–television, radio, and print campaigns–as well as to state and local public and nonprofit institutions. Empirical and anecdotal evidence illustrating the success of the Maya Angelou approach will be used to persuade policymakers, community groups, and the general public that there is a viable solution to the "unfixable" problems of poor urban education and juvenile incarceration.
David was born in New Mexico–one of eight children in a prominent political family. His parents taught him the possibility of creating change by identifying and transforming systems and, in so doing, improving the lives of individuals.
After college at the University of Virginia, David worked in finance and volunteered at a homeless shelter. While working at an investment bank, David created DCWorks, a college preparatory program for low-income, minority youth from urban areas. The program sent youth from New York City to Washington, D.C., for two weeks during the summer. They stayed in college dormitories and worked at local businesses. Over time, DCWorks evolved into a six-week program that taught basic college preparatory skills like standardized test taking and college essay writing.
After teaching for a year at an urban Catholic school for African American students, David applied to law school. He felt that an understanding of the law coupled with his understanding of the financial world would help frame his sense of how best to generate positive social change.
After law school and a few years in private practice, David began formulating an idea that combined his love of service to individuals with his belief in the need for systemic change–a business that would employ youth who had been involved in the court system. He applied for as many credit cards as he possibly could, liquidated his retirement funds, and bought a shop in an impoverished neighborhood.
During this time he met James Forman, another young lawyer interested in working with at-risk, minority youth. David and James found that they had similar views on the justice system and how it was failing youth by not providing them with the academic, vocational, and interpersonal skills necessary to stay out of jail. The two began by talking to young people to get a better idea of what programs and services they wanted. A pizza place was the solution.
As David and James continued to talk with their young employees, they discovered that the only hour of the day when the youth were learning was during their shift at the pizza shop, and though the two felt that the business was a good way to give kids the skills they needed to succeed in the job market, they knew that there were basic academic skills equally necessary that the public schools were not providing. To have the impact on the educational system that was failing at-risk urban youth, they needed to take the pizza shop idea to the next level and expand their reach. Combining what they both knew about direct service to at-risk youth and the educational, political, and juvenile corrections systems, they decided to open a school that would combine academic, vocational, and life skills in one place.