The Genesis of a Brighter Future Genesis City provides youth with a second chance at an education
Friday, August 2, 2019
By Tom Evans
Life is rarely linear. Yet when it comes to getting an education, our society is oddly conditioned to think that everyone is going to be able to do it on the same time frame.
And life can often be challenging, especially for those born into poverty. Poverty, in turn, can force you to make difficult, or even ill-advised, decisions. Those kinds of decisions — sometimes made in the interest of survival, sometimes made because a person doesn’t know any better — can have a ripple effect that cascades through the rest of a person’s life.
In the vast majority of cases, that’s what happens to kids who drop out of school. There’s this misconception that kids drop out because they’re lazy, but that’s rarely the case. Rather than pursuing their education in a linear manner, sometimes they have to work or become caregivers, just so their families can survive. Sometimes they experience trauma or heartbreak that slows their personal growth and development. Sometimes, the net of poverty spurs them into lashing out, or committing theft or parenting a child far too young.
So they drop out of school, or get kicked out, or get arrested and suddenly there’s no straight-line path forward anymore. They remain in poverty or end up in jail or worse — and the cycle of poverty carries on to another generation.
Well, that’s what can happen anyway. But that’s not what’s happening at Genesis City.
“There’s this myth that kids who drop out are lazy or don’t want to work,” said Karen Callahan, executive director of Genesis City. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the kids who come in here are so tired after working 30 or 32 hours a week, sometimes at night. We help give them ways to learn while dealing with that.”
Callahan has been with Genesis City since the beginning. Formed in 1991 as an intervention program that was part of Phoenix College, Genesis City evolved over the years, first into a 501(c)(3) and then as a charter school, with the goal of helping students reengage with the educational system and earn a high school diploma. The model allows Genesis City to tap into some state educational funds — but only for about 40 percent of its students. The rest is done through philanthropy and a lot of hard work.
Its mission is “to reclaim the promise of Arizona’s disenfranchised youth by providing them with the tools they need to become active contributors to the economic and social welfare of their communities.”
The reality is a holistic effort to literally save young people who would otherwise be lost. The numbers around the student population are startling — 95 percent of students live in poverty, 98 percent are minorities, 99 percent are a year or more behind in their studies. A full third have been in gangs or the juvenile justice system; 15 percent are teenage parents; 30 percent have been incarcerated or are on probation.
But Callahan said they are young people who often have limitless promise if given the right opportunity.
“They’re nonconformists,” she said. “They think outside the box and think differently, and that’s why they can be a huge benefit to the community. They’re sometimes mavericks in their own families. But they’re the type of kids who become leaders.”
The Genesis City model removes the linear boundaries of traditional education and adjusts the pace to fit each student. If a student needs time off for a family matter, they can pick up where they left off. Genesis City provides support to students and families — sometimes even financial support — to ensure the home environment is stable.
“It’s the thorough, holistic approach that makes us different from other schools,” said Shana Tompa, the organization’s development director. “There are so many kids left behind who have talent and potential … They’re worth fighting for.”
As a result, there’s a flip side to the numbers. More than two-thirds of Genesis City graduates are first-generation high school graduates in their families, and an amazing 80 percent of Genesis graduates go on to post-secondary education.
When you tour Genesis City, Callahan and Tompa frequently stop to point out photos of college graduates who are now out in the community succeeding. They proudly recall the challenges that the students faced when they came in and how they helped each one learn to overcome them.
The young people who graduate are required to perform 35 hours of community service — although Callahan said it ends up being more like 100 hours each. And in the process, they learn skills and enjoy experiences they never would have otherwise encountered, which in turn expands their horizons.
And when their horizons expand, they start to see opportunity. This summer, a dozen Genesis City students that are part of the Young Entrepreneurs program will attend conferences across the country. Seven of those students will be among 300 nationwide at a conference in Detroit. For many of them, it will be their first time on an airplane.
“We are telling them that if you have a great idea, you can own it and nurture it and benefit from it,” said Luis Bleuze, who oversees the Young Entrepreneurs program at the school. “You can find yourself achieving a high level of pay for it.”
I asked Callahan if it ever feels exhausting, having to work so hard to overcome the constraints that poverty has on young people. She pointed out that when it comes to measuring the success of these kids, traditional metrics don’t apply. Dropout rates, for example, are based on completing a four-year education in four years. So she spends an inordinate amount of time trying to explain the organization’s work in other ways.
“What’s most exhausting is having to fight for them,” she said. “You have to become an educator for educators so that people understand.”
The good news is that it’s working. One measure is the success stories on the walls, but another is the fact that many of the students at Genesis City are the children of students who were first-generation high school graduates as well — and received their diplomas from Genesis City.
The philanthropic support has been increasing as well, highlighted by Genesis City receiving a $100,000 “Playmaker” grant from Phoenix Suns Charities, a grant that will help them transform their physical space.
But the biggest transformation takes place when young people who were on the cusp of being left behind find themselves somewhere they never dreamed of being.
“We take these first-generation high school graduates and help bridge them to post-secondary education,” Callahan said. “And when we can do that, we can break the cycle of poverty more quickly.”