Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center
220 Elmwood Avenue
Providence, RI 02907
Established in 1981, the mission of Dorcas Place is to assist low-income adults in realizing their full potential through literacy, employment, advocacy and community involvement. In carrying out this mission the agency embraces these values: advocacy, collaboration, community, family, empowerment, compassion, diversity, hospitality, life-long learning, respect and responsibility.
Dorcas Place provides a comprehensive range of education programs and related services designed to fully support students in meeting their goals in relation to the adult roles of family member, worker, and citizen:
- Instruction in reading, writing, math and computer literacy in a classroom setting up to 30 hours a week. Programs are available in different formats.
- One-on-one and small group instruction by staff and trained tutors in the Learning Resource Center.
- Workplace Literacy Program with four training tracks and on-the-job internships.
- Support services to help students identify their strengths and address obstacles that may interfere with attaining their educational goals and make referrals to outside agencies when necessary.
- Family literacy program that brings parents and children together in a creative, learning environment.
- Parenting classes for parents of young children with topics ranging from general family health, nutrition to basic life skills.
- College Bridge program to help students make a successful transition to college after earning their GED.
Rationale and Background
The Dorcas Place Career Academy goal is to get students meaningful jobs that will initiate a career path. Over 66 percent of Dorcas Place students receive public assistance, and 72 percent were unemployed in 2006. Many have never worked outside of their homes. The overwhelming majority of Dorcas Place students are women. Current welfare regulations in Rhode Island require that students transition to work in 24 months. (Other states, such as Massachusetts, are even more restrictive.) The Career Academy model has evolved over time in response to student needs. An earlier design included specific career tracks but that had some pitfalls. Without any clear goal-setting or job awareness, many students found that they really did not want to pursue a career in the particular track they had entered. Additionally, the staff found that many students lacked the fundamental skills—both in literacy and work-related—to effectively begin a career path. It was determined a more generalized approach would be less limiting and more effective. The current model focuses on work readiness skills for entry level jobs that the typical Dorcas Place student can qualify for.
Description of the Practice
Student recruitment. The Career Academy is geared towards students who need to get a job and also want to stay in school. Dorcas Place staff recruits students from the regular classes and the community. While all students are introduced to the Career Academy, they need to have a minimum CASAS reading score of 210 (roughly 4th grade equivalent) in order to be eligible for it. Although student recruitment is becoming easier, the Career Academy has not been an easy sell. Not everyone is eligible or able and willing to attend full-time. The outreach to enrollment ratio can be as high as 10 to 1. In 2006 the Career Academy served 125 students. This number is expected to increase.
Curriculum and Assessment. The Career Academy curriculum is based on the national Equipped for the Future (EFF) framework for Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning and the National Work Readiness Credential. See http://eff.cls.utk.edu/workreadiness. The curriculum is flexible and individualized. A typical student attends 12 weeks, but 10% exit early because they’ve found employment and another 10% stay 16 weeks. Through both group activities and individualized instruction, the program develops concrete work skills, such as phone etiquette, data entry, word processing and bookkeeping, while also building academic skills in English and math. Students attend classes 9 am – 3 pm five days a week.
When an instructor or the student identifies an area where more improvement is needed, e.g. specific job-related tasks or academic skills or computer skills, she completes a Skill Building Report and drops it off at the “Job Center”. A Job Center instructor then prepares an individualized lesson for that student to help her/him build that skill.
To complement the individualized work readiness activities, and class-based academic instruction, the Career Academy holds weekly meetings with students that simulate staff meetings. Many students have never attended a staff meeting. Students take turns developing the agenda and leading an icebreaker activity, often a trivia question. In the meeting, students and staff review Career Academy events of the week and share job news and tips. In each meeting, students are invited to reflect and evaluate what skills they learned and improved during the preceding week.
Another activity that prepares students for the world of work is simulated job interviews that employers hold with students at Dorcas Place. The Career Academy holds this so-called “Tune-Up Day” every ten weeks. Students have to dress up for it and prepare for the interviews as if they were interviewing for a real job. Each interviewer is asked to give the student an assignment. For example, the interviewer may ask the student to write a thank you letter in Microsoft word and then email it. Or, if a student claims to be proficient in Excel, the assignment may be to create a chart of banks in Rhode Island with columns for address, phone number, and contact person.
Dorcas Place is developing a rubric based on EFF skills that is cross-walked with CASAS competencies. This rubric will inform the weekly progress reports teachers prepare on each student. They capture progress in areas such as class assignments, punctuality, attendance, effort, and job readiness. There’s also a psycho-social assessment. When each student completes the intake process, (s)he meets with a case manager who goes through a barriers checklist. The list serves to identify potential problems that may interfere with school and/or work and provides a starting point for discussion between student and case manager. This method allows the case manager to make an assessment and make proper referrals if necessary.
Career awareness and personalized job search assistance. Each student meets with the job developer during the first week of classes. They review goals, strengths, interests, and areas to work on so the process of matching a student with a suitable job can begin. They work on career awareness and planning. The activities include site visits to places of employment, classroom speakers, informational interviews, career inventory analysis, and teacher-generated activities to broaden career knowledge and understanding. By week 12, students need to have finished their cover letter and resume. By the time the classroom portion of the cycle is completed, each student creates a Career Portfolio that includes a cover letter, a resume, references, a writing sample, a personal statement, and tests on MS Word.
The Career Academy works with well over 30 employers to find jobs for students. They include local banks, health care providers, insurance companies, retailers, non-profit organizations and some manufacturers. A feature of the program is a stipend fund. Students are paid $100 upon job placement, $100 upon 3 months in the job, $100 after 6 months in the job. There is a job development fund that can cover expenses for materials required for certain jobs, such as uniforms. Students can continue to access the Job Center after they’ve completed the curriculum for ongoing assistance with job search.
Internships. An internship program begins in week 7 and typically lasts two weeks. Internships may be at Dorcas Place or off-site; they are unpaid, entry level positions. Currently, 14 employers, ranging from the Mayor’s office to the local health center and YMCA day care, host interns. An Internship Coordinator is responsible for finding and negotiating internships in careers that students are interested in. She meets with the employers to develop an Internship Agreement that spells out the schedule, duration, and responsibilities included in the internship. The Internship Coordinator trains the students if the employer does not have the time or are not willing to do so, and she resolves any conflicts that may arise. The training is tied to the needs of the employer. For example, an internship at the local newspaper typically entails doing spell checks for articles or updating addresses in the data base. Each internship concludes with an evaluation where the internship provider reports on the strengths and weakness of the intern.
Only a small percentage of the internship providers hire students, but that is part of the design. Dorcas Place does not want to exhaust the pool of internship providers and wants to maintain the site as a learning environment for its students. Many of the internship providers have neither vacancies nor resources to hire students, but believe that the hands-on learning they can provide through internships is a benefit to the students.
Employer Council. Dorcas Place has an Employer Council that meets quarterly to advise on the enhancement of the Career Academy model. Employers give a one-year commitment to serve on the Council. In that time they report on trends they see in the local workforce, assess needs, and provide tips on how to enter certain job markets. Navigating the system in many of the area’s large companies is difficult and the Employer Council provides insider suggestions.
The Career Academy design aims to meet the challenges of the changing job market and employer needs, and students’ varying levels of academic and work readiness. The model requires lots of flexibility and ongoing thoughtful modification. Student recruitment has been a challenge, given the full-time attendance and other eligibility requirements. Another challenge is that many large employers require a high school credential. Dorcas Place has been advocating with these employers to be more flexible about this requirement and to consider the skills the students have even if they don’t have a GED or high school diploma. The fact that subsidized child care is not available for two-parent families has been yet another challenge in placing students into jobs.
Impact and Effectiveness
The Career Academy serves about 125 students a year; there are nine overlapping cycles, each cycle with in two groups of students. The completion rate has been 75 percent. The staff monitors on an ongoing basis where students are in the process of pursuing and reaching their stated goals. This is done through progress assessments (i.e. computer skill development) and individual meetings with the case manager and job developer. They follow up with students six months after job placement. The six-month job retention rate for those securing employment since January, 2006 is 73%. Career Academy students are currently employed at Bank of America, Citizens Bank, Sovereign Bank, Cox Communications, Cranston Public Schools, Miriam Hospital, AAA of Southern New England, and YMCA, to name some.The Career Academy staff considers that a key factor in student success is students taking responsibility for their own learning and recognizing the need to be flexible. Students who have succeeded realize that they may have to accept a less desirable position at a desired company in order to “get in the door”, and from there, move on.
Employers like and value the Career Academy. So far, two have stepped forward to make financial donation that help fund the Career Academy.
Cost and Staffing
The Career Academy’s annual budget is $575,000 which supports intensive, comprehensive, and individualized services to students many of whom have no marketable skills or have never held jobs before. While the cost per student is quite high due to initial costs, infrastructure development, and ongoing modifications in design, the figure is expected to drop as the program matures and the staff becomes more efficient at delivering services. Most of the budget goes toward staff salaries. In addition to the Director of Workforce Education, the Career Academy staffing consists of four Instructors, Internship Coordinator/Career Counselor, Case Manager, Job Center Facilitator, Job Developer and Intake/MIS Specialist. Of these staff, the Director, two instructors, the Job Center Facilitator and the case manager work full-time. All other positions are part-time. Most of the funding comes from private foundations and an annual corporate spelling bee. Dorcas Places plans to apply for state funding.
Implications for Practice, Policy and Research
Programs wishing to replicate the Career Academy need to develop strong relationships with employers with entry level jobs that offer career growth possibilities. Programs need to be able to provide comprehensive support services, such as case management and job counseling, directly or through collaborative agreements.
In order for welfare (TANF) recipients to be able to participate in intensive education and training programs such as Dorcas Place in every state, the TANF policies need to allow basic education and skills training to count toward the work requirement. There is a need to increase awareness among policy-makers and employers about the time it takes to educate and train adults with limited literacy skills. Adults who do not have a high school credential should not be disqualified from jobs if they can demonstrate workplace competencies.
Research is needed on the impact and effectiveness of the Career Academy. A longitudinal study would be helpful in determining long-term outcomes for the participants of this program.