By David Liebler.

Meet Katery. Eighteen months ago, Katery was a classic at-risk youth. She would often skip school and had no plans to continue her education beyond high school – if she graduated at all. She had been in trouble with the law, having been arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Now Katery’s on track to graduate a year early and is preparing to start taking classes at the local community college. She is also starting to talk about planning for a career. Quite a turn-around for an individual who at one time saw working in the fields as an adult her only option.

Katery credits her turn-around to a highly successful, collaborative Yolo County program designed to engage youth who are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system. It’s called the Yolo County Construction Program and includes educational, vocational and rehabilitative components.

“I never thought I’d go to college. That was never in my plans. They helped me set goals and get myself on track. This program helped me gain confidence, be more self-sufficient and bring out things I didn’t know I had in me,” Katery says.

Participating youth attend a specialized classroom in the morning and paid work in the afternoon. If the students don’t successfully complete a specific number of assignments each morning, they aren’t able to head off to their job that is paid for by the program. On a recent visit to the classroom, it was clear that there was incentive to do well with the books; students were focused, attentive and quiet as they tackled their assignments.

Gaylelynn Gerhart serves as Principal for Alternative Educational Programs for the Yolo County Office of Education. She is quick to talk about the incredible relationship that has been developed with the County Probation Department.  And she has seen how the program is turning young lives around.

“They love the accountability, they love the structure,” she says.

While the program is designed and run by the County Probation Department, several other agencies have partnered to ensure its effectiveness. The Yolo County Office of Education oversees the classroom, the nonprofit Communicare treatment services provides an on-site counselor to help the youths with any issues, and Northern California Construction Training provides the work site and vocational training at the Yolo County Fairgrounds.

“What makes this an amazing program is the incredible collaboration of all the stakeholders. The Probation Department could not provide all these services. In fact, no one agency could,” explains Dante Cercone, Supervising Probation Officer.

Gerhart agrees that collaboration is the key to the program’s success. “You look at the classroom and you have a probation officer, you have an instructional aide who has her teaching credential, you have a credentialed teacher and you have a license therapist. What a perfect setting. Talk about having on-the-spot response.”

As part of their 20-hour a week job, students are building everything from park benches for the county to dog houses for local animal shelters. They even did work at Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats. When the students talk about the importance of earning an hourly wage, it’s not to purchase frivolous items. They talk about helping their parents with the bills, buying clothes for their little brother, or diapers for their child. And they talk about how the skills they are learning can translate into a good-paying job after graduation.

If anyone wonders if time and money invested in this program are worth it, just take a look at the numbers. In the 2015-16 school year, only 20 percent of the student body attended 75 percent or more days of school.  More than 50 percent attended less than half the number of days of school, and the suspension rate was 25 percent.

Enter the Yolo County Construction program. For the 2016-17 school year, 100 percent of the program participants have met the goal of 75 percent or greater attendance; the average rate of attendance is 85 percent, and there have been no suspensions.  The youths who have gone through the program haven’t committed any new law violations.  That’s a drastic turn-around for individuals who came into the program as some of the county’s highest risk offenders.

“Students who haven’t been successful are suddenly blossoming, I have parents beating down my door that would love their children to be part of this program,” Gerhart concludes. “The bottom line is they are our future. And if we don’t have a way to work with them, who does? We are kind of their last stop, and we don’t take that lightly.”

Cercone sums up the program’s success. “At the end of the day we have youth who are graduated, youth who are being employed instead of being incarcerated.  This program is an example of when collaboration does work, amazing things can happen.”

This Yolo County program is a recipient of a 2017 CSAC Challenge Award, which spotlights the most innovative programs in county government. The Call for Entries for the 2018 awards will be released in April.