Antelope Valley YouthBuild, a Palmdale-based leadership development program that offers vocational training and helps 16 to 24 year olds earn their high school diploma, received a grant of $6,500 from SunPower Foundation this month. The foundation is the not-for-profit arm of SunPower Corp., a world leader in solar technology and energy services.

Antelope Valley YouthBuild was one of 10 not-for-profit organizations recognized for its work in renewable energy, education or the environment as part of a semi-annual grant program offered by the SunPower Foundation. The money will be used by AV YouthBuild to provide education, career development services, and leadership opportunities to young people in the Antelope Valley.

“It’s an honor to receive this grant from the SunPower Foundation,” said Rossie Johnson, executive director of Antelope Valley YouthBuild. “We are looking forward to furthering the education and leadership skills of ‘at-potential’ youth with this grant.”

The SunPower Foundation selected grant recipients for 2014 based on a standard set of criteria including the organization’s 501(c)(3) status, mission, vision and planned use of funds.

“Through the SunPower Foundation, our company is pleased to support renewable energy, education and environmental initiatives in communities around the world,” said Doug Richards, SunPower Foundation chairman. “These investments are sure to have a long-lasting impact thanks to the work of groups including Antelope Valley YouthBuild.”

AV YouthBuild began operations with 12 students in 2007, and in 2012 received $800,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor to launch the SMART (Start Making A Real Transformation) program for youth in the community. That grant helped the organization to offer additional support services such as counseling and job development, as well as a stipend for 36 students. That year AV YouthBuild received an additional $1.1 million from the Labor Department to help implement programs in construction, nursing and solar technology. There are more than 300 young people studying with AV YouthBuild today; a number of them have learned construction techniques and are building housing for program students at 5th Street East and Avenue Q3 in Palmdale. A community training center will lie adjacent to the living quarters to serve community members who wish to gain job training and life skills.

“We’re very pleased to receive this grant from SunPower and will use the funds to further our outreach to youth,” said Meia Johnson, director of operations with Antelope Valley YouthBuild. “The support of the community is critical to our continuing service to young people. The city of Palmdale is probably our biggest champion; they’ve provided many resources and have provided our kids with a number of community service opportunities. We’d also like to thank (retiring) Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon for his support and guidance in helping to make Antelope Valley YouthBuild a vibrant success.”

Over the past seven years, more than 1,000 young people have graduated from the program, have received their high diplomas and many are working full-time in jobs they trained for. This year, AV YouthBuild has seen at least 60 young people complete the program, having earned certification for work in the various professions taught.

Students typically spend six to 24 months in the full-time program, which includes an academic component Monday through Thursday, leadership workshops on Friday and, community service opportunities once a month on Saturday. AV YouthBuild offers an accredited high school diploma and hands-on occupational training in construction, wetland fire technology, nursing assistant and solar technology installation through various partners, including the YouthBuild Charter School of California Central, Antelope Valley Community College, the city of Palmdale, Paving the Way Foundation and New Technology Training Institute.

Paving the Way is a popular not-for-profit in the Antelope Valley that helps with the development of “at risk” youth, homeless, elderly, disabled persons and those recovering from alcohol and drug abuse.

YouthBuild Charter School has helped introduce a unique educational approach to young people who have had trouble in traditional schools. “It’s a project-based learning curriculum,” Johnson said. “It’s all about hands-on; taking concepts they would normally be frustrated with in a textbook and putting them to real-life experience. It’s a great way of learning, and it’s a great partnership for us.”

Instead of the term “at-risk,” YouthBuild officials like to use the phrase “at-potential” to illustrate what can be done with young people who may need a bit of encouragement to return to high school and receive their diploma. Their mission statement notes of “unleashing” the intelligence and positive energy of “at-potential” youth to rebuild their communities and their lives. AV YouthBuild seeks to join with others to help build a movement toward a “more just society” in which respect, love, responsibility and cooperation are the dominant unifying values, and to ensure that “sufficient opportunities” are available for all people in all communities to fulfill their own potential and to contribute to the well-being of others.

Such private operations like Antelope Valley YouthBuild have had to fill an educational void over the past few years, because federal funding to provide vocational and technical education pursuits has dwindled. The Obama Administration in 2012 proposed a 20-percent reduction in its fiscal budget for career and technical education (a little more than $1 billion), even as it seeks to increase overall education funding by 11 percent. Recognizing that employment and income have expanded for those with college degrees, the president has said he wants America to produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

In 2011, fewer than one-third of America’s 25- to 29-year-olds had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Advocates say the most compelling case for vocational education is that it, at a minimum, keeps students interested in school. According to 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), about 75 percent of students who start public high school will graduate within four to five years. But more than 90 percent of those who concentrate on career-oriented courses—a definition that varies by state—also graduate, according to statistics compiled by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Strong vocational programs that start in high school, the DOE found, can help students make the leap to one- or two-year credential training programs that are, increasingly, the ticket out of low-skilled, low-wage jobs. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found last year that 27 percent of people who get a vocational license or certificate after high school—whether at a community college or profit-making institution—earn more than the average for those with a bachelor’s degree.

The only real alternative these days to public schools for career training is profit-making colleges and trade schools, many of which have drawn criticism lately for sending students deeply into debt without improving their job prospects or, in the case last year of Career Colleges of America, simply close down and skip town in the middle of courses.

Arnie Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, said last year that “at a time when local, state and federal governments are all facing tremendous budget pressure, advocates for vocational education must make a compelling case for continued funding.”

As well, the call for academic reform and a return to vocational training in high school finds advocates fearing that minority and low-income students will once again be channeled into vocational courses without being challenged enough early in secondary school in preparation for a four-year college or university. Most educators say that a rigorous academic curriculum is the best way to help all workers remain flexible, climb career ladders and prepare for a wider spectrum of jobs.

But there’s much to be said about the merits of vocational education, based on an old saying about the “guy who fixes your BMW probably drives one.” Industries like manufacturing and healthcare (the latter profession was highlighted last month by President Obama Barack during a speech at Los Angeles Trade Technical College), find employers reportedly calling for better career and technical education because they cannot find qualified candidates to fill their openings for machinists, welders and certain categories of nurses, among other jobs. As baby boomers retire and the economy [gradually] picks up, analysts also expect more demand for medical technicians, dental hygienists and law enforcement workers.

Public School Review in 2012 found that vocational training can prepare youth for high-paying, skilled jobs more quickly than the four-year college route. Vocational training, they said, is on the rebound to re-introduce to teens such careers as auto repair, food handling, cosmetology, computer repair, healthcare, construction and business science.

AV YouthBuild also wants to reduce recidivism among teens and young adults.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department also has a program underway to provide classroom study for inmates who want to earn their high school GED. AV YouthBuild is attempting to go “one better” by not only returning people to school, but by fully training them and placing them into profitable careers. The Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2012 reported that there are 3,000 facilities nationwide which house young people whom courts have deemed “threats to public safety.” The majority of these facilities are secure detention centers, residential treatment facilities and group homes. The DOJ found that many youth largely commit crimes because they suffer from a lack of opportunity that their communities, schools and families have failed to provide for them. Some sociological factors, the DOJ found, may contribute to juvenile justice—including poverty, racism, a generational acceptance of crime, and neglect by civic and educational leaders—therefore career counselors, career educators and vocational trainers are working more with youth in the justice system to directly help these persons and their communities. Career counselors at AV YouthBuild are those professionals who can act as “change agents” in the lives of youth and society at large.

According to the Institute of Edcuation Sciences, secondary vocational education is provided through three types of public high schools: (1) comprehensive high schools (the typical U.S. high school); (2) area vocational schools which are regional facilities that students attend part of a day to receive their occupational training, and (3) full-time vocational high schools or campuses that offer academic studies but focus on preparing students for work in a particular occupation or industry.

The majority of young people in the Antelope Valley who may benefit from vocational training have either dropped out of school or are incarcerated; in either event, they don’t have their high school diploma.

Today a newer model, called “therapeutic detention,” offers services and programs that remediate and rehabilitate the juvenile offender. More doors of opportunity are being opened for these young people to enable them to become productive citizens. It is possible via the latest national interest in reviving vocational education that juveniles may benefit from employment training, if it helps them find meaningful work, and later, careers. Employment training in young people, they said, may assist them in the satisfaction of material desires (e.g: a new car, clothing/fineries, an apartment, etc.) and this may lead to wide-reaching positive outcomes for individuals and their communities.