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An Evolution of Excellence: A Brief History of The Work Force Program

In the early 1980’s, The Work Force piloted a holistic model of support for teens that has remained at the forefront of the after-school educational movement. Over the course of its long history, the program has consistently sought ways to sustain and refine its core integrative approach while creatively addressing the changing needs of its participants.

Like many social service programs, The Work Force’s origins lie in a concerted effort to rectify a glaring social problem: in this case, an alarming drop-out trend among the Cambridge’s low-income youth. To address the problem, the CHA’s Resident Services Department acquired state funding in 1984 to implement a Pre-Vocational Teen Program (PVTP) in a recreationally-based Teen Center at the Jefferson Park development. Partnering with the Cambridge public schools and local employers, PVTP represented a new approach to the field of youth services, providing public housing teens with a diverse range of sustained academic and vocational supports, and creating a culture of high expectations in which completion of high school and entry into the workforce was the norm.

PVTP’s initial participants quickly embraced the program, and made it their own. In PVTP’s first year of operation, participants suggested re-naming the program “The Work Force,” a play on the slogan from the then-popular movie, Star Wars: “The Force is with you.” The name was promptly changed, and due to growing demand among public housing youth in its first months of operation, the newly dubbed Work Force Program opened additional sites at the Roosevelt Towers and Newtowne Court/Washington Elms family developments in the spring of 1985.

By 1990, after only five years of operation, The Work Force had all but eradicated the school dropout problem among its 120 participants annually. In recognition of these efforts, the program won a 1990 Ford Foundation/Kennedy School of Government Innovations in State and Local Government Award, one of 10 such awards nationally.

Fresh off this accomplishment, The Work Force quickly tackled a new threshold through the introduction of the College Prep Initiative, which made post-secondary education or training a central goal for all program participants. Implementing an array of new supports beginning with students in the 8th grade, the program raised the college-going rate among participants to over 90% within several years.

In response to the adoption of the MCAS test as a statewide graduation requirement in 2002, the Work Force launched a second major reform, the Literacy Initiative, to help public housing teens bolster the skills necessary to achieve proficiency on the test. Focusing on the development of reading comprehension skills in all five levels of the program, the Literacy Initiative resulted both in passage of the MCAS test by Work Force students at the same or better rate as the Cambridge high school population as a whole, and in an increase in program participants’ academic preparedness for college.

And finally, in response to feedback from Work Force alumni and a formal alumni study, The Work Force again raised the bar of expectations for its students. Launched in 2008, the College Success Initiative seeks to increase the percentage of Work Force alumni graduating from college within 6 years. The program is currently in the midst of developing a new array of activities aimed at helping students – generally the first generation in their families to attend college – to make more informed college choices and to adapt better, as Work Force alumni, to the culture of the college campus.

Since 1984, The Work Force’s integrative approach to youth development has achieved a remarkable record of success, and is one in a long-line of innovative Resident Services programs that seek to help young people and adults to develop the competencies required to join the social economic mainstream. Today, The Work Force continues to generate the vast majority of its own budget, utilizing government funding on the federal, state, and local levels, as well as support from private foundations, corporations, and individuals.

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