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February 29, 2024

‘Disconnected youth’ bill receives support during public hearing

ALLY LEMASTER / CT MIRROR The Education Committee holds a public hearing on a bill for "disconnected youth" on Feb. 28, 2024.

Akiliah Crawford, a senior at University High School of Science and Engineering, relied on free bus transportation in Hartford to get to and from school and activities that she wouldn’t have had access to otherwise — soccer practice, community service and work.  

But after that free pandemic-era transportation program ended last year, Crawford could no longer participate in extracurriculars, she said. She quit soccer after the two-mile trudge in late-summer heat became too much. 

“A city bus pass isn’t just transportation, it’s opportunity,” said Crawford. “My opportunities, again, are limited.”  

Crawford, along with several other students, educators, government officials and advocacy groups, spoke in support of House Bill 5213, an Act Concerning Disconnected Youth, during a public hearing held by the General Assembly’s Education Committee on Wednesday. 

The bill calls for an advisory board to develop a plan to identify and re-engage students at risk of dropping out of school and “disconnected youth,” defined as 14- to 26-year-olds who are neither in school nor working. 

It seeks to expand data gathering on disconnected youth, improve connections between services agencies and young people, and establish additional academic credit opportunities and work programs for youths facing economic disadvantages.

In some cases, like Crawford’s, re-engaging these young people might simply entail reinstating free public transportation services. One section of the legislation calls for just that.

Sean Tomany, principal of University High School of Science and Engineering, brought several students to the hearing, all of whom shared Crawford’s support for free transit. 

“Many of my students don’t have access to transportation, so they have to make a choice,” Tomany said. “Am I going to go to the doctor, or am I going to go to school? Am I going to play a sport, or am I going to go home on the school bus?”

“Access to a city bus gives my students equitable access to education. We’re talking about disconnected youth. I’m talking about connecting my youth.”

According to a recent report from Dalio Education, more than 119,000 — or about 19% — of young people in Connecticut between the ages of 14 and 26 were “at risk” or “disconnected.” 

The report found that the number of at-risk students significantly increased during the pandemic, attributable in part to the compounded effects of chronic absenteeism and mental health issues among young people. The number of disconnected young people has stayed roughly the same, between 62,000 and 73,000, over much of the past decade. Disconnected and at-risk students were mainly concentrated in Connecticut’s largest cities.

And while transportation is key to keeping students engaged, it’s not the only problem, officials say. The larger issue is poverty. 

“We know that there are many root causes for a young person to become disconnected, most aligning with the impact of malignant cycles of poverty,” Treasurer Erick Russell said in testimony before the committee Wednesday. “Our response to this crisis and our scope of study should be commensurately expansive.”

He also voiced his support for elements of the bill that would expand data gathering on youth in these circumstances. 

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, spoke in favor of the bill, calling it “a good start.”

“There are districts, standalone schools that are trying to address this issue on their own,” Candelora said, adding that he believes the committee needs to “steer legislation” toward working with these schools. 

While much of the public testimony was supportive of the legislation, several educators said the problem of disconnection for students often starts earlier than age 14.

“My students are not yet 14, but I work with students who are disconnected and not engaged with school,” Carrie Cassady, a sixth-grade science teacher, said in written testimony. “We need to find new ways to engage all students, at every level, and to give them a variety of ways to participate in our communities.”

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