The practice of taking a “Gap Year” between high school and college has become increasingly popular with graduating seniors in the United States. Those who take a gap year generally view it as an opportunity to explore the world, experience exciting new opportunities, develop a sense of ‘self,’ and become a little more independent before settling down to another four years of academic challenges in college. For these young adults, a gap year is something freely chosen, thoroughly enjoyed, and – quite often – funded by parents.
But for those students who experience homelessness during their high school career…every year is a gap year. Although, to be sure, a completely different kind of gap year and one which is neither freely chosen nor enjoyed in any way. Giving whole new meaning to the phrase, “mind the gap.” In fact, the kind of gaps these kids experience wreak havoc on their otherwise promising young lives. These gaps do nothing to advance their chances for success and can, in fact, undermine their sense of self. The gaps they experience – both academic and social – are many: valuable school days lost, the safety of home torn asunder as families are separated indefinitely, important friendships cast adrift as the homeless teen moves from place to place, and invaluable opportunities and advantages missed out on due to such factors as cost, transportation, or time. They are the kind of opportunities that, for the most part, we all took for granted growing up. Something, for example, as simple as getting a driver’s permit is beyond the pale for a homeless youth who wouldn’t dream of asking his parents to help pay for it.
Early on, New Pathways recognized the needs of this particularly vulnerable population of disconnected youth and decided to do something about it. Proactively. In 2015, New Pathways created a new program called Pathfinders, designed to serve homeless high school students in Eastern Baltimore County. Funded by Baltimore County and in cooperation with Baltimore County Public Schools, New Pathways provides much needed support, counseling, advocacy, and other services to 30 eligible students and their families throughout the academic and calendar year. During the summer, New Pathways works in partnership with the Y in Central Maryland in support of the Y’s New Horizons summer internship program. For five days a week in the morning hours, New Pathways provides critical soft skills, life skills, and job readiness training to the county students enrolled in the Y program. In the afternoons, those same students then go off to their various summer jobs; jobs procured by the Y. Through this circular relationship, the Y, the schools, and New Pathways maintain much needed continuity and service to students throughout the year.
But it is during the academic year when those services are most critical. Under the eminently qualified direction of Community Support Specialist, Kyle Beliczky, New Pathways has made the difference between success and failure for 30 students this past year and hopes to do the same for at least as many – if not more – in academic year 2016-2017. According to Kyle, the program’s goals are twofold: one, to make sure that every student enrolled in the program meets or exceeds school attendance expectations and two, to successfully complete their current grade and graduate to the next level. For seniors, that goal extends to college and/or employment in the coming year.
On the surface, the goals seem fundamental. Nothing could seem like a more basic responsibility for a high school student than to stay in school. But if you are homeless and moving from place to place, getting to school is not as easy as it sounds. Yet, when a young person is absent from school, he or she not only misses out on the important academic lessons that are so critical to success in adulthood, but they also miss out on all the extracurricular opportunities, programs, and supports that can help cement that success. The gap can become so wide that they risk falling right through it. And of course, if they fall so far behind as to not graduate, the chances for a successful adulthood decrease exponentially. In reality, achieving the program’s goals requires a remarkable amount of dedication, vigilance, and advocacy. And it is fair to say, no one is a more passionate or dedicated advocate than Kyle.
“You have to understand,” Kyle explained. “These kids can feel so alone. It’s a very deep and personal trauma to watch your family struggle and to come to school and have to act normal, as if nothing is wrong. It takes a tremendous toll on a young person.” To have one’s parents and family be otherwise engaged or, worse, absent from the process at a critical stage in a teenager’s life when there is so much to learn, to be exposed to, and to take advantage of, can be devastating for a teen. It doesn’t mean, however, that that teen has to go it alone. The New Pathways Pathfinder program helps fill in those gaps. During the school year, Kyle can be found at one of 5 county high schools participating in the program, engaging in one-on-one weekly meetings with each student, offering counsel, addressing academic and personal goals, providing career development skills, and connecting the students with much-needed community resources.
“Most of the students simply don’t know what’s available to them, what resources are out there, and what their rights are in terms of those resources or how to access them,” Kyle explained.
On any given school day, Kyle serves as a benevolent go-between, working with teachers and staff -who may not have the complete picture about what a particular student is going through at any given moment – and the student and his family. He connects students with academic tutors. He helps each student access food banks, housing services, day care services and utilities support, and shows them how to understand bus routes and fill out job applications, so they can get to school or a job from their temporary housing location. And yes, he even helps them get their learner’s permit.
“Essentially, my role is to bridge the gap between all the support options and the kids and to keep all the key players on the same page,” Kyle said. A juggling act that requires diplomacy, patience, and perseverance. And Kyle doesn’t just “call it in.” He thinks each student is served best by developing personal relationships with those who can help them. So, when Kyle isn’t in school, he is usually visiting one of the many support service programs in the area on behalf of one student or another.
By all accounts and partners, Pathfinders has been an unqualified success. All participants in the program did indeed stay in school and were promoted to the next grade level. All 8 seniors in the program graduated, receiving their high school diploma with the rest of their class. Seven of those graduates will be attending college in the fall. The eighth has a job lined up. All participants reported that the program “positively reshaped their worldview, increased their motivation, and removed barriers,” allowing them to “focus on the future.” Kyle has great hopes for the continuation of the program.
“The capacity to expand is unlimited,” Kyle stated. “The need is great and with enough funds and manpower, we could easily double our capacity this year. There’s no reason why in three years we couldn’t be in schools throughout Baltimore County, not just the east side.” Kyle is optimistic. Though funds and manpower may indeed be slim, Kyle would like to see the program go statewide in 5 years.
“The thing is, at New Pathways, we identified a need that no one else had identified. There isn’t anything like this out there.” Nor anyone quite like Kyle. With an advocate like him, anything is possible. He does, indeed “mind the gap.” He minds it very much.