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Report: About 19% of CT youth 'disconnected' or 'at risk' in 2021-22

More than 119,000, or about 19%, of young people in Connecticut between the ages of 14 and 26 were “at risk” or “disconnected” in 2021-22, according to a new Dalio Education report released Wednesday morning.

The report, which compiled data from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, Department of Children and Families, Department of Labor, Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the state Department of Education, concluded that more than 63,000 young adults were disconnected and 56,000 students were at risk between 2021 and 2022.

The report defines “at risk” as high schoolers who had a low number of credits and were not on track to graduate on time and students struggling with other factors including chronic absenteeism or behavioral issues.

“Disconnected” was defined as high school graduates who were neither employed nor enrolled in higher education, high school non-graduates who were employed, young adults who had neither a high school diploma nor employment, and incarcerated individuals in that age group.

“A lot of what this report does is get us further in understanding what we know in Connecticut,” said Andrew Ferguson, co-CEO of Dalio Education, a grant foundation that engages with public school communities and provides funding to several nonprofits. “The fact is from 2015, to the present, every single year, somewhere between 60,000 to 70,000 young adults experience disconnection. We hope that sharing that fact starts these conversations around the state about why that’s true.”

The report ties the outcomes for these young people to the state's finances and job market. It estimates that by getting all of those youths "back on track," Connecticut would spend less on social services and bring in more in taxes — an estimated net benefit of some $650 million.

“Supporting disconnected young people to get back on track could help fill a large portion of the Connecticut labor market’s 90,000 unfilled jobs and boost Connecticut’s [Gross Domestic Product] by $5 billion — $5.5 billion,” the report states. “Our analysis suggests that getting today’s 63,000 disconnected young people back on track could also boost Connecticut’s fiscal performance for an overall annual fiscal impact of $650- $750 million. This includes $300-350 million in additional tax revenue … [and] $350-400 million lower spending on government services, driven by reconnected young people utilizing fewer social safety net services.”

As schools across the state continue to deal with the effects of COVID-19, especially regarding chronic absenteeism and mental health, the report says the number of at-risk students has significantly increased, but the number of disconnected young people has relatively “stayed between 62,000 and 73,000” since at least 2015.

Ferguson was unable to answer what factors were contributing to students experiencing disconnectedness prior to the pandemic.

According to the report, data shows that “there was not a commensurate increase in students falling behind on credit attainment” since the pandemic, but that there may be a significant decline in graduation rates in years to come, which should be worrying to the state.

“Some graduating students are leaving high school with worse credit attainment and attendance vs prior years, likely resulting in a reduced level of preparedness for the critical next stage of their lives,” the report said. “If the current trajectory continues, the count of at-risk could remain elevated. Today's high school students who are at-risk have the potential to become tomorrow’s disconnected young people.”

Disconnected and at-risk students were mainly concentrated in Connecticut’s largest cities, including Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Stamford, Danbury, Norwalk and New Britain, totaling about 21,640 young people on average through the last five years.

“These cities, among Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, constitute 40% of all at-risk and 36% of all disconnected young people in the state,” the report said, adding that rural parts of the state are also seeing higher concentrations of struggling youth. “Small towns of Sterling, Sprague and Salisbury have disconnection rates of 30%, 28% and 34% respectively.”

School transfers are more likely in cities and rural towns, which is “associated with higher rates of disconnection,” the report said.

“Fifty-two percent of high school students who transfer high schools at least twice experience disconnection one year after high school versus 19% of students who never transfer high schools,” the report said. “Overall 70% of school transfers happen across town lines. Particularly high rates of school transfers across town lines can be seen in Connecticut's smaller rural towns … in addition, 30% of school transfers happen across high schools within a single town. These transfers can also be quite disruptive and are seen most often in Connecticut’s larger cities.”

The report included three personal experiences from affected young people, ranging from a student who was struggling with her attendance after COVID-19 then switched to an alternative education program in Hartford to get back on track, to another student who had struggled with mental health issues before later falling into substance abuse in college and eventually was in-and-out of prison. The second young adult said he wished he had better mentorship at that time in his life.

The Connecticut Mirror was unable to connect with the young adults used in the report for comment.

Representatives from Dalio Education also did not answer how many students or young adults they spoke to for the report in addition to those three stories but highlighted that their "community partners" were "working tirelessly with these young people and ... constantly in communication with them."

Ferguson said this population of youth is experiencing an “unspoken crisis” and hopes the report brings more awareness to stakeholders.

The report recommended best practices to address, and improve, outcomes for disconnectedness. These included increasing the visibility of this population of youths through school district data and annual reports, improving coordination among "cross-sector coalitions," expanding capacity of organizations involved with these young people and providing additional funding toward effective programs.

This story was originally published by The Connecticut Mirror.

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