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March 7, 2024

CCM and Dalio take next step on disaffected young people in CT

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Josh Brown, a co-chair of the 119K Commission, at the state Capitol.

Dalio Education, a foundation backed by a billionaire, made waves last fall with a study documenting evidence of societal disconnection in nearly one-fifth of Connecticut’s young people, a finding with generational implications for public education, criminal justice and the labor force.

On Wednesday, the state’s municipal leaders launched a partnership with Dalio to transform data into action and address questions unanswered last fall by Dalio, which declines to lobby for specific reforms: If not Dalio, then who will act on the data? In other words, what’s next?

“Well, today is what’s next, that very important next step of trying to come up with strategies and put work into action,” said Joe DeLong, the executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

With funding from Dalio, the conference announced the creation of the 119K Commission, the outline for fact-finding hearings over the spring and summer, and the goal of producing “a comprehensive, bipartisan, pragmatic strategy” in October to address issues certain to require local, state and private-sector actions. 

The name derives from the 119,000 Connecticut people from ages 14 to 26 who were judged to be disconnected or at risk of being disconnected from school or employment, based on factors such as chronic absenteeism, behavioral issues, and leaving school without a degree or other path to employment.

The 15-member commission will be led by three chairs: Torrington Mayor Elinor Carbone; Andrew Ferguson, the chief executive at Dalio; and Josh Brown, a high school dropout who became a banking executive and leader of Domus, a non-profit serving teens in Stamford.

The others are DeLong and mayors from three of the state’s four largest cities — Stamford, New Haven and Hartford — as well as mayors and first selectmen from mid-sized and smaller communities: Bloomfield, Canterbury, Middletown, New Britain, New London, North Haven, Stonington and Stratford.

The Boston Consulting Group, which collected and analyzed the data for the first report in October, is staffing the commission.

Dalio Education is both a funder of direct services through grants to local non-profits and more recently an organization trying to be a catalyst for an overarching strategy on addressing disaffected young people and collaboration among the disparate public and private entities serving them.

“We’re talking about our responsibility together, whoever you are in Connecticut, to work together to collaborate, to care for each other, to care for our young people. That’s what this commission is about,” said Ferguson, the Dalio executive.

While some educators, service providers and policy makers have expressed annoyance at Dalio’s “discovery” of a problem well-known to them, its efforts largely have been embraced by those with work at-risk young people for the attention and marketing savvy brought to what the foundation has branded as “Connecticut’s unspoken crisis.”

By Dalio’s count, there were 56,000 teens who had dropped out or were in danger of dropping out of school in 2021, often exhibiting unheeded warning signs such as chronic absenteeism, plus another 63,000 young adults who were unemployed, underemployed or had never entered the job market.

“They’re disconnected from social safety nets and social support systems. They’re disconnected from pathways to opportunities to build a career to build a brighter future. And it’s not just a Hartford issue,” said Mayor Arunan Arulampalm of Hartford. “That’s why we are standing here as a diverse coalition. It’s not an urban issue. It’s not a big city issue. It is an issue that impacts big cities and small towns and every suburb across the state of Connecticut.”

The business community is closely watching the effort. With more than 100,000 unfilled jobs in Connecticut, the prospect of getting a significant percentage of disaffected young adults in the labor force is enticing.

Mayor Justin Elicker of New Haven, where nearly one student in four will not graduate from high school, outlined efforts his city already is making.

“But clearly, we need to do a lot more, and I want to underscore just how severe this challenge is: In 2023, 1,433 young people ages 14 to 26 were arrested in New Haven,” Elicker said. “Just think about that number — 1,433 individual young people were arrested in New Haven.”

The effort was announced at the state Capitol, but it will operate without direct participation by lawmakers or the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont. 

Watching the announcement were three lawmakers who sit on the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee and were cautiously optimistic the effort would build on existing efforts, not compromise them. The oversight committee is a multidisciplinary group created in 2014 with some of the same goals articulated by Dalio.

“So let’s find out what we have done. And let’s bring it forward and then go from there,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, a member of the oversight committee who also co-chairs the Appropriations Committee. “Because if we don’t, then we’re gonna keep doing the same things over and over again and never make progress.”

Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, a recently retired police officer, challenged DeLong over whether the affected populations would have a seat at the table.

DeLong said the commission is planning at least eight public hearings throughout the state with the goal of listening to the populations at risk and the professionals who already serve them.

Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, another oversight committee member, said she was encouraged after speaking with Mayor Erin Stewart of New Britain, a 119K Commission member who assured her they would “not be reinventing the wheel,” and by the promise of extensive outreach.

“I think the thing that excited me was just hearing how they are going to meet people where they are,” Porter said.

Porter is an advocate for ending suspensions or expulsions of troublesome students, a practice she says means giving up on young people. 

“When kids are in trouble, you don’t push them out, you pull them in,” Porter said. “When your kid is in crisis, do you kick him out of the house? No, you pull him in, you sit him down, you talk to him, you wrap your arms around him.”

It is a sentiment that Brown, a co-chair of the commission, said he understands.

As a high school student in Stamford, Brown said, his 300 absences over the years attracted no significant intervention, and he eventually was barred from school after a stint in juvenile detention. Brown said he did better in an alternative program after his expulsion.

“This 119k Commission is very, very important to me,” Brown said. “Because the disconnected and the disengaged youth, those are the Josh Browns.”

The commission’s first public meeting will be on March 26.

“The March meeting will focus on systems and how they work together, or rather, how they should work together in service to young people,” Ferguson said.

Subsequent sessions will explore the child welfare and justice systems, education and labor force issues.

To follow the commission’s work or to submit comments, go to https://119kcommission.org/commission.

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