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Next Generation Zone helps struggling young people get back on education, career track

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 9, 2015

Next Generation Zone student Joseph Petruska, 18, works a grammar problem in a GED reading class on Wednesday. The career center focuses on helping kids that have dropped out of "traditional" schools. It's open to anyone between the ages of 16-24. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Next Generation Zone student Joseph Petruska, 18, works a grammar problem in a GED reading class on Wednesday. The career center focuses on helping kids that have dropped out of "traditional" schools. It's open to anyone between the ages of 16-24. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Clean, bright lines of color radiate across the walls. The paint is fresh and the carpet gleams.

The young adults who shuffle in don’t always have clean, clear directions in their lives. They are high school dropouts, drug addicts and runaways.

The building’s décor is intentional, Next Generation Zone Director Trina Clayeux said. In fact, it was just remodeled.

The goal is to “have kids come in and say, ‘Hey, this looks like an Apple store,’ ” she said.

The Next Generation Zone is run by the nonprofit Spokane Area Workforce Development Council and helps youth ages 16 to 24 get their GEDs and hopefully a job. And it serves as a staging area for a multitude of other services including Open Doors, YouthBuild and Job Corps. The organization also partners with local businesses and the Community Colleges of Spokane. According to Clayeux, 40 percent of all GEDs granted in Spokane County come from the Next Generation Zone.

The programs are free, if participants qualify, Clayeux said. Qualification is primarily based on financial need.

“Most of our kids don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.

Like 21-year-old Chris Orndorff.

He showed up to the weekly Wednesday new-student orientation about 30 minutes late but jumped right into the conversation. Sarah Werkman, a career specialist leading the session, asked the potential students about the biggest barriers in their lives. Orndorff rattled off three: Drugs. Gangs. Himself.

“I know streets,” he said. “That’s all I know is the streets.”

Like many of the students, the last time Orndorff attended school regularly was in 2012 when he finished his sophomore year. Since then, Orndorff said, he’s bounced around, selling and doing drugs.

While going through a monthlong detox program, Orndorff heard about the Next Generation Zone and decided to try it. He wants to work as a roofer, a job he’s done before and loved.

Wednesday’s weekly meeting is for students new to the program, Clayeux said. They learn about the services the center offers and sign up for an entry assessment. Once they’ve taken the assessment, they start coming to the center.

To be enrolled, students have to attend a minimum of six hours a week. However, Werkman recommends students participate eight to 10 hours every week. About 90 percent of students who attend the meeting come back for the assessment, Clayeux said.

“Traditional high school doesn’t fit everyone, even though that’s what our society wants us to believe,” Werkman said.

In an effort to accommodate all needs, the Next Generation Zone allows students to work at their own pace and provides comprehensive support.

Everything is free for students thanks to a mix of federal and private money, Clayeux said. Students are given food and bus passes. Staff also will refer students to transitional housing options and other services if needed.

“You can’t really focus on education or a job if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep,” Werkman said.

Next Generation Zone is unique, said Jessica Cato, the Spokane Area Workforce Development Council workforce program manager. She said she’s toured similar programs across the United States and the comprehensive coverage sets it apart, along with its blended funding model. Although the Next Generation Zone is authorized under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, it also has private funding sources. The Next Generation Zone started in 2007 and has been in its current location since 2010.

“You’re not going to get dropped off the cliff when you get your GED,” Werkman said. “You will not be able to fall through the cracks. You will not get lost.”

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