Mayor Ron Nirenberg shakes hands with Blake Hastings during Connecting Youth to Opportunity in San Antonio.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg shakes hands with Blake Hastings, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas San Antonio Branch, during the Friday summit. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In Bexar County, there are currently more than 30,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not working or in school. They come from all walks of life, neighborhoods, and school districts, and the impact of their disconnection from the local economy is so significant, they are referred to as “disconnected youth.”

But their potential has also earned them a more optimistic label – “opportunity youth,” a term coined by the head of a public-policy firm in Washington, D.C., in a 2012 report.

Re-engaging those youth was the subject of a meeting between City and business leaders Friday morning at the San Antonio branch of the Federal Reserve Bank where Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Sheryl Sculley introduced a pilot plan to solve the problem by opening the state’s first comprehensive youth re-engagement center.

The NXT Level Youth Opportunity Center, located at the Frank Garrett Community Center on the West Side, will be staffed with social workers and job training counselors with the goal of serving at least 600 opportunity youth from across the city in its first year of operation.

The City has funded the program with $500,000 annually directed to Communities in Schools of San Antonio and Goodwill San Antonio to run the center. Another $200,000 in City funds will go to other nonprofits partnering with the program, and JPMorgan Chase announced Friday it will provide a grant of $150,000 to Goodwill to support the program.

Bexar County’s opportunity youth account for 14 percent of the age 16-24 population, the same as Harris County, whose population is more than twice Bexar County’s, according to Measure of America using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In Texas overall, 15 percent of youth are considered disconnected.

Nationwide, more than 5.5 million youth are deemed disconnected, according to Opportunity Nation, the forum for youth investment, which estimates young adults who are not in school or working cost taxpayers $93 billion annually and $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in lost revenues and increased social services.

“When I first heard the number 30,000, I thought to myself, ‘That is a small city anywhere in America,’” Sculley said, adding the scale of the problem is especially concerning given San Antonio’s current low unemployment rate and the workforce levels needed to attract employers to San Antonio.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley
City Manager Sheryl Sculley Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

And the effect on the local economy is long term. “Adults who are disconnected as youth are 45 percent less likely to own a home, 42 percent less likely to be employed as an adult, and 52 percent less likely report good health compared to adults who were connected as youth,” Sculley said. “They appear in our court system, our homeless shelters, and in our jails.”

Seven departments within the City of San Antonio collaborated to develop a business plan that led to the creation of the youth opportunity center, including representatives from human services, public health, parks and recreation, the library, economic development, and the municipal court, with input from the National League of Cities and local school districts.

The reasons a young person becomes disconnected are many, from loss of a parent to poverty and lack of nutrition. “Children do not get to choose the environment they are born into,” said John Bull, presiding judge of the San Antonio Municipal Court, who oversees the docketing of 400,000 cases a year.

He said many of the disconnected youth he meets never had a first chance, much less a second, and each one deserves a helping hand. “You can’t look at it as 30,000 [youth who need support],” Bull said. “You have to look at it as the one kid you’re talking to today.”

Bull urged hiring managers and business owners to work with the NXT Level Youth Opportunity Center to give disconnected youth the opportunity to work and learn job skills.

“They’ll do their part to get them ready,” he said of the program. “We need the business community to meet us halfway and give these kids a chance because, I will tell you in my experience as an employer, those have always been the best employees. They’ll work harder and do more for you … They are so smart and so resilient.”

Presiding Judge of San Antonio Municipal Court John Bull.
Presiding Judge of San Antonio Municipal Court John Bull. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Young people haven’t given up, but society in some cases has given up on them, Nirenberg said. “At the core of our country is this belief that through hard work, ambition, and perseverance, everyone has a fair shot to get ahead,” he said. “But all too often that belief goes unfounded as the zip code where we are born … determines our destiny. This is especially true for our nation’s youth – and acutely true in San Antonio. We hope to change that.”

Rebecca Flores, education program administrator for the City of San Antonio, has been leading the team since October 2017 to develop a business plan that directs more funding beyond school-based dropout prevention programs.

“We were hearing from our police officers that they were meeting these young people and wanting to get them mentors,” Flores said. But when they reached out to nonprofits, they found that all the funding to help such youth was tied to the schools. “So they were getting frustrated. There’s nobody to help these kids who are just disconnected.”

That led to conversations among City departments, school superintendents, the National League of Cities, which provided technical support in the planning, and local nonprofits that are already working on youth engagement issues and providing skills training and educational attainment.

“We’re bringing in all of these nonprofits that do this better than us,” Flores said. “Communities in Schools has that social, emotional, mental health [experience]. Goodwill has [expertise in] job training and getting them into educational pathways. So we’re combining those two courses, and we’re providing a structure as a city so we can expand those programs.”

The business plan calls for opportunity youth to be referred to the center through various outreach efforts, including the school district’s “leaver list” – kids who enrolled in the fall, but weren’t in school as of May – and from a list of young adults who have graduated from high school but can’t be located in higher education institutions or in the workforce.

“What was interesting to us [in our research] is how many people have someone in their lives in this situation,” Flores said. “People just don’t know where to go. We have 15, some say 17 school districts in San Antonio. And if you’re interested in coming back, it’s very difficult to navigate the situation.

“Now we have a place where everybody can say, ‘Go to the NXT Level. They will walk you through that process.’”

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.