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Special report: disconnected youth in Kern County

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - It's summer vacation, but as classes start back up in the fall, a large percentage of local young people will not be in school or working. That's according to a recent study by Measure of America that looked at rates of disconnected youth across the country.

Kern County came in near the very bottom.

Lupita Lopez, 17, understands the difficulties of staying in school, often picking fights with other girls.

"I was young and full of drama. I was just looking for problems," she explained.

But it wasn't just other students she pitted herself against, she was up against the odds as well.

"I wasn't getting along with my mom. I was running away. I made it a habit of running away," she said.

Those habits eventually got her expelled.

"I thought that going with my friends - drinking, smoking - I'd do better by doing that than going to school," she remembers thinking.

Lupita now chocks it all up to being "immature." But her difficulty staying in school is not unique.

The study by Measure of America found the Bakersfield-metro area has the second highest rate of disconnected youth in the country.

"We looked at 98 of the 100 largest metro areas in the United States. Among those, 10 were in California and Bakersfield came in at the bottom," said Sarah Burd-Sharps the Co Director of Measure of America.

But what exactly are "disconnected youth"?

The study defined them those ages 16 to 24 who are not in school and are not working. At 21.2 percent, that's more than 26,000 young people in Kern County.

"[It] seems like a huge wasted resource," said Burd-Sharps of their findings.

With California now officially a majority Latino state, that "wasted resource" is exactly what worries Audrey Dow, at the Campaign for College Opportunity.

"When we think about the demographics in California, with one in two children under the age of 18 being Latino, California simply cannot sustain its current economy with that low of a baccalaureate attainment rate," said Dow. "Twelve percent is far too low."

Twelve percent is the California average for Latinos. But in Kern County, it's only 5 percent. That figure was published recently in the National Journal - Bakersfield, once again, coming in at the very bottom of the nationwide list.

What needs to be done to make sure kids growing up in Kern County at least have the option to get the education they deserve, and who is responsible for making that happen?

"I think it's a shared responsibility. I think it's a community responsibility along with parents, along with schools," said Daryl Thiesen, the prevention programs coordinator at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office.

His job is to help keep kids in school, or find them alternative career pathways, which makes him very aware of the barriers they face. In addition to issues of poverty and segregation, which affect many areas of the country, he says Kern County also faces two unique challenges.

"We have a high migrant education population where the families are moving with migrant farmworking jobs, so they're moving in and out of Kern or from one area of Kern to another."

Secondly, due to the Kern County's large geographic area, many of the communities outside the core of Bakersfield have far fewer resources to create successful learning environments.

But there are options available.

"There's the Grizzly Youth Academy for some people who are behind in credits. Getting involved in the California Conservation Corps for 18-23 year olds and hearing about that so now they stay in school and finish their program," explains Thiesen.

There are many others, including "Youth Build" which helps students graduate and learn work skills.

The focus on community engagement is not just for students. Thiesen says, getting resources to parents is another huge focus, recently initiating a class called "Parents on a Mission"

But despite his best efforts, he admits, there is a lot of room for improvement.

"Clearly with the Latino population, African American youth, children who live in poverty, those are areas right now where we are focusing more effort and there is more to be done," he said.

When looking at disconnected youth, there is another factor Thiesen has little control over: the job market.

Burd-Sharps says, even for those who do have a high school degree, getting a job in the current economic landscape in Kern County is not easy.

But at the individual level, there is a lot more than just statistics and dollar signs.

"Everybody has a story to their life," says Lupita.

Sharing her story became a powerful tool after she joined a mentoring program called "Stay Focused."

"I didn't just have a story about a bad relationship with my mom, everyone had a bad relationship with their mom!" she recounted.

Manuel Carrizalez founded the program 23 years ago, using his own experiences to help others.

He says the organization now mentors about 1,000 kids a year.

"My goal is for the kids is to believe, 'I can be a lawyer, doctor, cameraman or a news reporter, or the President of the United States.' The thing is to dream," he said.

He believes, the causes behind the high rates of disconnected youth are varied, though, throughout his years of mentoring he has found one common denominator.

"Everything starts in the family. ... If you have a strong family, you have a strong child," he said.

"They all want to be loved."

Lupita says, in the process of mentoring, she found a new family, and new hope.

Her senior year, she transferred to Bakersfield High and graduated this spring.

"Starting from 8th grade to junior year to a point where, I didn't think I was going to make it senior year. I didn't even think I was gonna cross the stage with my class. I didn't even think I was going to be alive," she said, trying to hold back tears.

It was also the end of her long fight with the person who supported her the most. Her mother.

"She was so happy, my family was so happy and my step mom as well. I was like wow, I finally did it, finally high school's over!" said Lupita.

She now has a job and hopes her transformation will inspire others.

For more information on the mentoring program Lupita went through, check out its Facebook page here.

Other resources include Grizzly Youth Academy, California Conservation Corps and Youth Build.

For additional information, visit the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office website.

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