June 21, 2019

Foster Youth Program Expands Its Reach Beyond Rhode Island After Winning Harvard Award

teenage girl on computer with adult looking on

The Innovations in American Government Awards is the nation's preeminent program devoted to recognizing and promoting excellence and creativity in the public sector and is given by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

In the six months since Rhode Island’s Works Wonders program won the 2018 Innovations in American Government (IAG) Award, the successful pilot program has been able to expand its reach to cities in other states. “One of the things that is the 'special sauce' about this model that I really want to lift up for anybody reading about it is the fact that it was co-created and co-administered with young people,” said Lisa Guillette, the Executive Director of Foster Forward, a nonprofit that helped found Works Wonders. “I think it’s the driving force as to why the model has had the success that it’s had. So helping other people be able to take up authentic youth engagement is really an exciting part of the replication.”

The program, which began in 2012 as a combined effort of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (DLT), and Foster Forward, aims to equip youth who are aging out of foster care with career readiness training and skills in order to position them for stable jobs and careers. National data on this population shows youths who have aged out of foster care are at greater risk for unemployment, incarceration, early pregnancy, low educational achievement, poverty, mental health problems, and homelessness. Furthermore, traditional skill-building employment models have not helped to ameliorate the issues these vulnerable youth and their families face.

In response, Works Wonders was created to specifically address the needs of youth in and who have aged out of foster care. What sets it apart from other employment programs across the country is that Works Wonders doesn’t have the minimum literacy and numeracy level qualifiers that are often barriers to entry. DCYF also helped reduce those barriers by removing arbitrary group-home policies that prevented youth from attending the trainings for their employment experiences.

The Works Wonders program engages their participants in a five step model: 1) referral and enrollment, in which the youth are given decision-making control on whether they would like to participate; 2) empowerment and employment training, in which the participants have 10 to 12 hours of soft-skills training in a group environment with their peers; 3) career coaching, in which the youth receives 12 weeks of individualized job coaching; 4) experiential learning, in which the participants are linked to work-based learning opportunities; and 5) employment, education and vocational training, in which the youth are supported based on their career interests.

The program maintains a public-private partnership with the state of Rhode Island, the Governor’s Workforce Board and its Real Pathways workforce development program. As a result, there are a number of employers that Rhode Island has already engaged to provide paid employment or work experiences for the program participants. Works Wonders also enlists individual employer partners that are willing to provide work experience for the participants. Foster Forward pays the participants during their work experience. Then through the relationship with the Governor’s Workforce Board and the state of Rhode Island, if the employer opts to take on the participant for employment at the end of the work experience period, they can add them to their payroll and the employer is eligible for a tax credit as an incentive.

And the program is working. A recent research study showed that Works Wonders has an 83 percent completion rate and participants are 37 percent more likely to be employed as compared to those who do not participate in the program. Since winning the IAG Award, Works Wonders has gotten the attention of two other cities — Fall River, Massachusetts, and Nashville, Tennessee — that want to replicate this effective program. The Award's $50,000 prize is enabling Foster Forward to provide training for staff members that may not have experience working with the foster youth population, as well as creating training materials and documents to support the replication of this imperative work in other locales across the United States. Not only that, explained Guillette, but they are also helping the other cities think through and operationalize authentic youth engagement — a key ingredient to Works Wonders’ success.

“We’re really primed for a replication opportunity that might include more rigorous study,” said Guillette. “One of the things I’m excited about with Nashville is that there are some really interesting commonalities between our two jurisdictions.” With success now expanding to other cities, Works Wonders is working to scale their operations for a much wider reach to more US jurisdictions. It’s really only a matter of time.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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