In the spring, the John T. Gorman Foundation announced our support of a new pilot program designed to offer young people in the Portland area the opportunity to gain meaningful work experience over the summer. The Gateway to Opportunity (G2O) initiative now has its first summer in the books—and by all measures, it was an immense success.
The initiative was designed in line with national best practices, and benefited from advising provided by national workforce development experts from Brandeis University.
Twenty-two high school students from the Portland Public Schools participated. Many came from diverse backgrounds and all faced economic challenges. A wide range of partners, including the Portland Housing Authority, Portland ConnectED, The Opportunity Alliance’s OPEN Project, the Muskie School of Public Service’s Portland Empowered program, Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, the University of Southern Maine (USM), and the Greater Portland Workforce Initiative came together to conceive and launch the program. Several of the partners also served as work sites for the participants.
Teens in the program completed service learning projects that ranged from creating documentaries to conducting qualitative interviews and survey research. All of the projects focused on making the community a better place and on giving young people a voice, while simultaneously teaching the participants practical, technical skills to help them be better prepared to enter the workforce one day. USM students and recent alumni served as the team leaders for the project, in a “near-peer” model that’s been demonstrated to be particularly effective for both mentor and mentee.
To help students make the most of the stipend they received for their work, each received financial literacy training and the opportunity to participate in Opportunity Passport, which is a matched savings program also supported by the Foundation. In recognition of the rigor of the program, the participants are eligible to receive a credit towards their high school diploma.
“Not only did we have a 100 percent completion rate, but we had an 85 percent attendance rate, which is really impressive for a summer program like this,” says Nikki Williams, who serves as the G2O project director for the Muskie School of the University of Southern Maine.
The young participants also voiced their enthusiasm for the program in the evaluation conducted at the end of the summer. “They commented on their increased confidence, their appreciation of the teamwork experiences and how valuable it was to have so much influence over the projects’ direction,” says Williams.
The Foundation’s high expectations for this investment have been exceeded by the results from the program. “Learning-rich summer youth employment programs have been demonstrated to have a strong positive impact when they’ve been implemented elsewhere, and that’s a big part of why we wanted to help bring such a program to Maine,” says Sara Gagné-Holmes, Senior Program Associate at the John T. Gorman Foundation.
Gateway to Opportunity will return in the summer of 2017, and the partners behind it want to expand the number of youth they reach and the number of service sites in the program. To reach this goal, they are recruiting public and private sector partners who would be interested in serving as host sites during the summer or contributing to the costs of the stipends. This is a great opportunity to help develop the workforce of the future.