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Reengaging youth by rebuilding communities.

OFFERING CAREER AND TECHNICAL EDUCATION (CTE) PROGRAMS IN HIGH SCHOOLS TO REENGAGE students who have left is not a new idea, yet traditional school structures do not often provide the content, flexibility and supports required for these students. Those who drop out of high school tend not to go back; consequently, they lose out not only on their high school education, but also on postsecondary training opportunities. These individuals tend to earn less over their lifetime than their peers who do complete high school (Bloom, 2010).

A variety of approaches designed to pull these students back into the educational system are underway. Successful programs for young adults ages 16-24, who do return to complete high school after dropping out, have these elements:

* career academies with occupational credentials

* dual enrollment

* paid work experience/internships

* mental health and case management support services

* flexible, self-paced programs

* adult relationships and connections (Bloom, 2010; Cooper, Ponder, Merritt & Matthews, 2005; Fleischman & Heppen, 2009; Martin & Halperin, 2006; Treskon, 2016; & Zammitt & Anderson-Ketchmark, 2011)

In a survey of programs designed to reengage students who had left high school in southeastern Wisconsin, we found that a majority of programs provided flexible programming and some support services, but they did not provide students with dual enrollment opportunities, paid employment opportunities, or career and occupational credentials (Litzau & Rice, in press).

In the 2015-2016 school year, a new school opened in Racine, Wisconsin, that is designed to help students who have left or been pushed out of traditional schools. Certification and Emergency Response Training (CERT) School incorporates the elements noted earlier. CERT is affiliated with the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps, which has roots in the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. That program provided work for young men, teaching skills while conserving and developing natural resources. Modern-day Corps programs continue that tradition, with the goal of training young adults (known as Corps members), ages 18-24, for the workforce while participating in community service and public infrastructure development projects. At CERT schools, all students are Corps members.

The Structure of CERT School

CERT School prepares students to serve the community in an emergency or natural disaster, providing an introduction to a number of potential education and career pathways. Students acquire skills and credentials required by employers and earn a high school diploma at the same time. The curriculum features courses and hands-on learning practices that are often restricted for minors, so it is ideal for students 18 or older, though younger students can enroll. The training is paid for by funding from workforce-development programs and other grants. CERT students complete a sequential curriculum of occupational courses embedded with the rigor of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) required for high school graduation by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

The school is organized into trimesters and provides students with portable industry credentials in areas related to disaster response, recovery and rebuilding (each trimester is focused on one of these topics), and environmental sustainability. Students take short courses, attending classes in the morning and participating in project-based learning in the afternoon.

All students enter as seniors. In order to receive a high school diploma, they must earn 10 credits in a combination of class time and demonstrated proficiency in certain areas. CERT School students are also affiliated with AmeriCorps, and they earn college credit for their national service and training in disaster response. For some courses, CERT offers dual enrollment into local technical colleges for math and Language Arts courses, allowing students to complete postsecondary requirements while attending CERT School.

Response, Recovery, Rebuilding

Effectively responding to a natural or man-made disaster requires a broad range of skilled workers. In disaster response, transportation is vitally important: Individuals with the training to drive commercial trucks are needed. CERT provides training for students to earn their commercial driver's license (CDL). Furthermore, a response team needs individuals who are trained in hazardous materials handling and have an industry credential in Disaster Medical Operations-CPR/First Aid. These are part of the first trimester curriculum.

Disaster recovery courses include gaining knowledge and skills in water sampling and monitoring, potable water supply and protection, water distribution systems, and logistics and warehouse operations, to name just a few. Examples of courses that provide industry credentials during the disaster rebuilding trimester include: Entry-Level Solar Installer Certification, OSHA 10-hour Construction Safety and HVAC certification.

Strong Leadership

Three critical elements to get CERT up and running were strong leadership, creating networks and creative employees.

As executive director of the Milwaukee Community Service Corps (MCSC) for 12 years, Chris Litzau had a vision: collaborate with community leaders and organizations to provide opportunities for Corps members to gain real-world experience in various occupations through community projects. His larger vision was to combine this experience with education to allow students to earn a high school diploma, and at the same time gain industry credentials, earn some money, get college credit and support nontraditional students through to completion.

Litzau's experience with successful projects at MCSC gave him credibility in the region. When he shared his vision for students who would be served by CERT School, his passion elicited foundation boards to fund him, corporation leaders to partner with him and industry experts to mentor CERT students.

Litzau tends to lead by example. So, he went back to school to get a graduate degree in education, took hazmat training and created a curriculum that incorporated both the essential skills for hazmat and integrated essential CCSS strands, so that the class would earn DPI approval. Litzau was involved in every aspect of starting CERT School, from articulating a clear vision that students contribute to their community, to designing the disaster/community building framework, applying for the Voucher Program, writing workforce development grants and meeting with potential funders.

Without the ability to clearly and passionately state the goals of CERT School, their importance to the population of students served, and to the community at large, it would not have become a reality.

Creating Networks

Relationships are a key component of this work. Litzau reached out to federal state, regional, city, non-profit and private organizations. His work on solar panel installation earned an award from the U.S. Department of Labor's Green Jobs Innovation Fund through a partnership with Jobs for the Future. Organizations focused on similar outcomes, such as green technologies, workforce development or community revitalization, make good potential partners.

On a more local level, industry partners and mentors are needed to work with crews on projects. Litzau has built these relationships over the years. Students contribute to industry projects on the first day of school by hauling materials, weighting down solar panels or collecting water samples. The relationships between local companies and CERT School are mutually beneficial.

Creative Employees

CERT School does not have a blueprint to follow. The individuals who make the school work are committed to its vision. Many staff members, such as grant writers and administrative staff, work remotely and on a part-time or occasional basis. Case managers and industry mentors work directly with students regularly, but part-time. Litzau and the two instructors, who have a background in CTE, are the only full-time employees.

The teacher has a unique role in that he or she creates short courses for Corps members. One example was a training that Litzau attended by the National Incident Management System for public information officers. Such training would be useful for someone in a mayor's office who handles public announcements during a flood evacuation, for example. After Litzau attended the training, he and one of the teachers translated the information into a short course, including integrating CCSS for math and English/Language Arts. This is a unique role for an independent educator, creating rigorous curriculum for a wide variety of non-traditional courses.

CERT School focuses on recapturing youth who have not been successful in traditional schools. Many of these individuals could be characterized as "at-risk"--they may be juggling school and parenting, have medical needs, use recreational drugs, have financial challenges, are involved in the legal system (unpaid tickets, paternity suit), and/or have inconsistent attendance. Case managers are focused on helping students manage these life situations in the short term, with the longer-term goal of retention and, ultimately, completion. The instructors, executive director and case managers provide one-to-one instruction and assistance, helping students complete requirements that they may have missed due to absence. There is no gain to the student or to the community if the students are not supported through these life situations.


Young adults who leave high school need an alternative that keeps them engaged and gives them hope for the future. A high school that pays a stipend, provides hands-on learning opportunities in real-world projects that rebuild communities, offers dual-enrollment and tuition credit for further study, and is flexible in meeting students' needs is an important comprehensive alternative to even "alternative" high schools. CERT School can be a guide for other programs and schools that are interested in reengaging youth in rebuilding communities.


Bloom, D. (2010). Programs and policies to assist high school dropouts in the transition to adulthood. Future o f Children, 20(1), 89-108.

Cooper, J., Ponder, G., Merritt, S. & Matthews, C. (2005). High-performing high schools: Patterns of success. National Association of Secondary School Principals. NASSP Bulletin, 89(645), 2-23.

Litzau, C. & Rice, N. (in press). Effective aspects of re-engagement and recovery programs in southeastern Wisconsin high schools. Journal o f At-Risk Issues.

Martin, N., & Halperin, S. (2006). Whatever it takes: How twelve communities are reconnecting out-of-school youth. Retrieved from

Treskon, L. (2016). What works for disconnected young people: A scan o f the evidence. Retrieved from

Zammitt, K., & Anderson-Ketchmark, C. (2011). Understanding dropout recovery. Children & Schools, 53(4), 249-251.

By Nancy Rice

Nancy Rice, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Department of Exceptional Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. E-mail her at
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Rice, Nancy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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