Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.

Candace Picazo: I didn't have a big college dream. I was tired of all the homework

Many low-income people never learn in school what they need to get a job with a future.

Vanessa Moore: Because you don't want to be like me, working retail jobs, making little money

There's a new movement to lift low-income workers into better jobs -- by merging the classroom and the workplace.

Carlon Harris: You constantly thinking when you on the job. They make you think. You have to use your noodle, like, seriously.

I'm Stephen Smith. In the coming hour, "Workplace U," as in "university." A documentary report from American RadioWorks. First, this news.


Carlon Harris: Did you sign in yet? OK.

On Wednesdays, eleventh grader Carlon Harris goes corporate.

Man: Hello. How

Harris: How you doing?

Man: How are y'all?

Harris: Good. Can you sign in for me?

Instead of hauling his backpack to a classroom, Carlon settles in behind the front desk of the Innovation Depot in Birmingham, Alabama.

Harris: Innovation Depot is a business incubator for starting companies. And what I usually do here, I usually help at the front desk, but I also get a chance to like, experience how a company is made, like from the ground up. And how these people come in with brilliant ideas that don't know how to use it; so we come in and we kind of help them. So that's what I do.

There's a public meeting today at the Innovation Depot, with state senators and TV news cameras.

Harris: She's doing the interview.

Woman: Oh OK, I was like "why is that…OK"

Harris: Yeah, no quotes.

And there are also a lot of handouts to deal with so Carlon has to scurry to keep things running smoothly.

Harris: I'm going to have to go over to the copier and scan this before all this mayhem starts.

This is not an after-school job. Working at the Innovation Depot is actually part of Carlon Harris's high school curriculum. He spends one full school day each week here. This is Carlon's third year at the company.

Harris: You constantly thinking when you on the job. They make you think. You have to use your noodle, like, seriously.

Using his noodle on the job is supposed to help Carlon Harris do better in high school, help him thrive in college, and then have an edge on the competition when he hits the work world. The idea is to help students from poor and blue-collar backgrounds work and learn their way to a better life. It's part of a national movement in American education to bring the workplace and the classroom closer together.

[Music: Mercamon - Galactic - Ruckus - Sanctuary Records]

From American Public Media this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "Workplace U," that's U as in "university." I'm Stephen Smith. Now, we all know that a good education can be the ticket a good job. But for many Americans, conventional school just isn't working. On any given day in the U.S., seven thousand high school students drop out. And even if they graduate, often what they learned in the schoolhouse has not prepared them well enough for the job site. That is especially true for kids living in poor neighborhoods - where dropout rates are high, and school quality is often low.

Jan Fuller: Go to class! Come on, let's go!

The high school that Carlon Harris attends is Holy Family Cristo Rey. It's a private, Catholic school in a struggling Birmingham neighborhood. The dropout rate is more than 50 percent at other schools in this part of town. And if you are a young, African American male, your chances of going to jail are a lot higher than going to college.

Fuller: Good morning!

Brianna Gregory: Good morning.

Fuller: Your name?

Gregory: Brianna Gregory.

Fuller: Brianna. Alright.

In mid-July, ninth graders start filing into the gym at Holy Family. School doesn't start for another month, but they're here for freshman orientation and job training.

Fuller: I am Jan Fuller, I'm the director of the corporate internship program.

Jan Fuller's the one who assigns the students their work-study jobs in the business world.

Fuller: You see the shoes he's wearing? Look down.

Orientation is when a lot of the incoming ninth graders learn about the dress code.

Fuller: Those are not acceptable. OK? So when you get home tonight you explain to your mom you need dress shoes.

It's a financial struggle for some families, but the dress code is firm: neckties and slacks for the boys, blouses and sweaters for the girls. No jeans. Nothing baggy or provocative. Not at school, not on the job.

Fuller: Good morning. How are you Ryan? Have we done the handshake this morning? OK.

The handshake. Not a fist bump or high five - a handshake the business way; firm grip, look the other person in the eye. Don't mumble your good morning.

Fuller: Good morning Casey how are you?

Student: Good.

Fuller: Good.

Nikki Ming: Good morning. I'm Nikki Ming. I work for Regions Financial Human Resources department in the recruiting department. So first…

In orientation, the ninth graders meet with future employers and get basic job-training; stuff like spreadsheets and word processing and document filing.

The goal is that on the first day of work, each student will act like - a worker - not like a teenager.

Alex Steinmiller: So when a youngster walks in the building, and they actually shake your hand, they assert themselves. And they ask, "what do you want me to do?"

That's Father Alex Steinmiller, the president of Holy Family Cristo Rey.

Steinmiller: Which means Christ the King. Cristo Rey is the brand name for the Cristo Rey program.

There are 24 of these schools across the country. And they use the same approach to help kids from mostly poor, urban neighborhoods prepare for college.

Steinmiller: Once a week we bus them at 8 o'clock in the morning to a corporation: Banks, law firms, architecture, hospitals. Then they work a full day.

Gary Merrell: OK. Have a seat. Be quiet. Someone want to lead us in prayer?

Holy Family students don't have to be Catholic - but they do have to take a Catholic theology course every day. And every class opens with prayer. In biology, it's Avis Moore's turn to lead.

Moore: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, God's will be done, on earth…

Avis Moore is a ninth grader. He doesn't have a corporate work-study assignment yet, so he's just helping out around the school. The recession is making it harder for Holy Family to find job placements. But Avis is hoping to get an internship soon.

Moore: You can work one day. Rest of the four days go to school. But out of that one work day you go to a company that can pay you, that goes towards your intuition.

In the Cristo Rey system, a student's work-study salary pays about two-thirds of the tuition. The rest comes from the school's financial aid program and a sliding-scale fee paid by the family. Avis's mom is paying 95 dollars a month. And even though Avis just started high school, and hasn't even gotten that white collar job yet, he's got plans for life after college.

Moore: I'm trying to start in business, you know, lawyer, office work. Stuff like that. If that doesn't work out, I'm going into fashion.

Today Avis is wearing a gray patterned vest over a crisp white shirt and a black and gray tie.

Moore: What I don't like about this school is the dress code. So I know we have to be business-like and stuff like that. But, you know, some times, on regular days, some people want to wear casual clothes. That's how that story goes.

Basketball coach: Get your arms up Jeff. Stay low, stay low!

Cheerleaders: S-score, score, C-score score, S-C-O-R-E score score!

There are Cristo Rey schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia,with almost 6,000 students enrolled. Again, Father Alex Steinmiller.

Steinmiller: The original school, which was called Cristo Rey, in south side, Chicago, in what's called Little Mexico, now has over 600 students. With a waiting list.

The program in Birmingham started just a few years ago. There are 159 students. All of them are black. Holy Family's marketing program targets some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

Steinmiller: We have flyers in every beauty salon, every market within a 5-mile radius, and just leafleting, you know, door to door. And the grandma will find the grandchild. Or the uncle will find the nephew somewhere. In other words, those flyers get distributed.

Most of the students' families live near or below the poverty line. Father Steinmiller says the one day a week each student spends on the job makes school seem more relevant. It shows them a way to climb up out of poverty.

Steinmiller: It's patience. It's long-suffering. Any word you want to use. That's the value that the cycle of poverty chews up. The value of maintaining a goal, and maintaining a dream. So, Cristo Rey is a model whereby a youngster, a 14-year-old youngster will come to our school, will get a college prep education, if they apply themself. Which means doing homework, and being attentive, you know, seven hours a day in class. And, if they're willing to work for their tuition.

Merrell: What's the equation for cellular respiration? It's just the opposite now, remember.

Students: CO2 first. 602!

Most of the Holy Family parents are not college graduates. Some never finished high school.

Fuller: A typical family for us is a single parent or grandparents raising their grandchildren. And the income level must be less than $40,000 a year.

Jan Fuller says that for some kids, the school is a refuge.

Fuller: Some of the students here that come here from such destitute homes; you don't know it because they come here with a smile. Because they're happy to be here, they're happy to be away from home. They see that college is about to happen and I can get away from home. Some of them see it. Some of them don't.

[Sound: dog barking]

Avis Moore lives with his mom, Vanessa, an older brother and their dog Cootie. They rent a one story house in a low-income neighborhood of Birmingham.

Vanessa Moore: Most of the time I come home, I'm fussing.

Vanessa's 41 years old and she's tired a lot of the time.

Vanessa Moore: Why does my house smell like it's smelling?

Avis Moore: It don't smell anything …

Vanessa Moore: That's just it, it don't smell like nothing. Did you take the garbage out? You!

Ossie Moore: Yeah I took the garbage out.

Vanessa Moore: Anybody mop my floors in here?

Avis Moore: No I just got in!

Vanessa works two jobs. She runs the cash register at two different discount stores.

Vanessa Moore: What I do is get up in the morning, I fuss, go to work, come home, fuss, go to bed.

Vanessa is raising the boys on her own - their dad isn't around. Vanessa was grateful when Avis passed the entrance tests for Holy Family. But she's struggling to pay the monthly tuition. In fact, she's behind on her payments; Avis may have to go back to public school - but Vanessa hopes that won't happen.

Vanessa Moore: I dropped out of high school in eleventh grade. I didn't really have that parental push; you know what I'm saying? Like I push them? I didn't have that. That's how come I'm so hard on them about education. It's very important to get it. Because you don't want to be like me, working retail jobs, making little money, for you know. I want y'all to do better than what I do.

In the 21st century economy, how far you go in school is a huge factor in how much money you make as an adult. And there was a time in Birmingham when a person could live relatively well on just a high school education.

To find out more about the neighborhood's past, I arranged to meet a man named William Kindall in the neighborhood business district just down the road from Holy Family. Kindall runs Holy Family's elementary school. He's 57 years old and he's a life-long resident of the neighborhood. A lot of the storefronts around us were empty. But when William Kindall was a boy, this place was hopping.

William Kindall: We had Catfish Cabin, which was a restaurant at that period of time, we had Ensley Apothecary, Gilmor Drug, we had law offices. You had places where you could go and develop pictures - it was a hodgepodge where business took place here for this whole area.

For much of the 20th century, Birmingham, Alabama was a steel town. The region was rich in coal and iron ore.

Kindall: This was the Pittsburg of the South! It meant income for people who normally did not have to go past the eighth grade or the twelfth grade in school. So there was no special requirement for working in the steel mill. That molten steel was a sign that we were thriving, it was a sign that we were living, and it was a sign that we had three meals a days, we were living in decent homes and housing.

Smith: And when the steel industry in the U.S. collapsed in the '60s and '70s and steel collapsed here in the Birmingham area, what did it mean especially to African Americans?

Kindall: Loss of jobs. The only jobs that would begin to open up were the ones where people were academically or educationally prepared, or techno-savvy. Those were the only jobs that were open.

There is no way around it. This nation has moved from a muscle economy to a knowledge economy. So educational preparation and techno-savvy means college.

[Music: Bongo Joe - Galactic - Ruckus - Sanctuary Records]

The Cristo Rey approach is part of a larger campaign in American education to reverse the so-co called "achievement gap" between high school students from poor families and those who are more affluent. Often, that gap is defined by the color line. Because African American and Latino students are more likely than whites to be poor, they are more likely to fall behind.

Steinmiller: Our last year's freshman class, 40 percent of our freshmen - 40 percent - were at least one if not two grade levels behind.

Again, here's Father Alex Steinmiller, the head of Holy Family Cristo Rey in Birmingham.

Steinmiller: So thanks to our faculty,which is exactly 10 full-time faculty, spending two or three nights a week, two hours a night, with these 40 percent, brought most of them up to grade level by the end of the year. And because of that, they've been invited back.

More than a third of students who start at a Cristo Rey school don't finish there. For a lot of reasons: some move away, some just can't make it. Some families run out of money. Of those who do graduate, Cristo Rey boasts a college acceptance rate of 99 percent. To get to the finish line at Cristo Rey a young person has to learn not only how to succeed in a challenging college prep school, but how to take the future seriously.

Pamela Cowan: I do need your homework assignments please. Problems one through eight and I want those problems worked out.

Pamela Cowan's ninth grade math class seems especially squirrelly today.

Katlin Leshore: Leilah, where's my paper at? Where's my homework?

Back at a corner table is Katlin Leshore, cutting up with her friends, paying no attention to the math problems up on the board.

Leshore: Rodriguez, give me one of those CDs! Rodriguez!

Ms. Cowan fixes Katlin and her friends with a fierce eye. She is fed up.

Cowan: This is your beginning. Algebra I, high school. Ninth grade.

The students hunker down for a talking-to.

Cowan: A beginning for you. Some of you might be architects, drafters. It's going to take mathematics. Algebra I.

And that's pretty much how it goes until the bell rings. Then Katlin heads to her last class of the day - biology. She drifts around that classroom too, chatting with friends and putting on makeup. She seems bored and distracted in both classes. But when I talk to her later she says they're actually two of her favorites.

Leshore: I want to go to school and get my science and my mathematics degree. And I want to be a -not an anesthesiologist - but I want to be a medical examiner and then I want to be a forensic scientist. So I love biology and science.

Smith: You want to work with dead, dead people?

Leshore: Yeah.

Smith: And how did you decide on that?

Leshore: CSI Miami!

Smith: CSI, yeah I figured.

That's the popular TV show called Crime Scene Investigation.

Leshore: And I always been fascinated about, like, science, like anything. That's why I'm so good at math and science. Those are my two best subjects. I'm like, when the teachers talking, I'm like, yeah…

Smith: You're totally connected.

Leshore: Totally.

Katlin is one of the ninth graders who doesn't have a corporate job yet. So she's working one day a week at a Catholic elementary school across town.

Leshore: OK boys and girls. OK Jaylon. OK, no more high fives.

Katlin is a teacher's aide. She helps grade papers, takes kids to the bathroom, wakes them up from their naps. But she has been reprimanded for talking on her cell phone and listening to her music player on the job.

Velda Gilyot: The Cristo Rey students can't have cells or iPods in their own building. And this is a workplace for them so they are not to really have them in the workplace.

That's Velda Gilyot. She's the elementary school principal and Katlin's boss. Today, Katlin found a new way to get in trouble. So Gilyot calls up Jan Fuller, the internship director over at Cristo Rey.

Gilyot: When the children were napping she decided to go to sleep today. [Faint voice on phone.]

Gilyot: Yes, that would be suggested. She needs to be changed. Thank you. Bye bye.

For sleeping on the job, Katlin just got fired.

[Music: Have a Little Faith in Me - Bill Frisell - Have a Little Faith - Nonesuch]

Jan Fuller says the people at Cristo Rey expect this kind of problem, especially from a ninth grader. Most of these 14-year-olds - including Katlin Leshore - have never had a real job before. So, Katlin will do more job skills training and then try again.

Fuller: Sometimes it takes a little extra mothering, an extra push, an extra shove, or a kick in the butt to get them out. But it works.

Smith: Have you had kids who simply couldn't do it? Couldn't make it in the office environment?

Fuller: Now we have had those who have come here, and they've been placed on the job site and we realize something else wrong that the parents hid from us. And the majority of them, that's what it is. They've got some type of condition. May be ADH, may have autism. And they have hid it from us and the students were very programmed so they were able to interview with us very well, and get by. And when it came down to the actual workforce, they were not able to stay with us. And in that instance we don't put the student out, we let them stay with us for the duration of the year.

When the school year's over - these students may not get invited back. If they can't keep a job, they can't go to Cristo Rey.

[Music: Have a Little Faith in Me - Bill Frisell - Have a Little Faith - Nonesuch]

Harris: Karen's, you know Karen said she's going to be up in a few minutes.

Back at the Innovation Depot, eleventh grader Carlon Harris remembers when, as he says it, he was just a silly young freshman.

Harris: [Be]cause I can still remember the first day I came here, like the big glass doors and walking inside and being intimidated.

Carlon searches for the right words to explain how the corporate experience has helped him grow - as a student and as a young man.

Harris: You know you mold yourself. Because now I'm able to speak to people. I'm able to pronunciate. And just speak out in class more. I'm very, you know, I can sense it, a lot of people do sense it. That when you do get into the program you become more eligible, you become more profound. They make you become more than what you really are.

Carlon Harris is set to finish high school in spring, 2011. His class will be the first to graduate from the Cristo Rey program at Holy Family in Birmingham. Carlon's sights are set on college, medical school, then becoming a surgeon. Carlon's boss, Gerry O'Toole, is sure that this young man will make it.

Gerry O'Toole: Everyone that comes in this building that has any kind of interaction with Carlon, comes to me and they say, "That is the most on-the-spot young man we've met in a long time." What else can I say? What do I tell you all the time? I always tell him he's going to go far.

Harris: Yeah, always, always.]"You're going to go far. You're going to go far." Yep.

[Music: Freedom Jazz Dance - Lonnie Smith - Jungle Soul - Palmetto Records]

You're listening to "Workplace U," an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Stephen Smith. This program is about an informal movement in the United States to bring school and the workplace closer together. In a minute, we're going to go to the Pacific Northwest to hear the story of a young woman there who's getting her professional education on the job. But first, to help understand the context of this issue, I'm joined by our economics editor Chris Farrell. Hi Chris.

Chris Farrell: Stephen.

Smith: Chris, it seems like American educators are always coming up with new models for teaching children. What makes programs like Cristo Rey so significant?

Farrell: If you look at the high school dropout rate in many inner-city schools, it's clear that the current approach isn't working. So, by putting the workplace into the high school in some form or fashion, it tells the students why you're getting an education, why you're sitting in that classroom.

Smith: Schools are always adapting to changing times - what has changed about the way most people get ready for the workforce?

Farrell: Well used to be, there were apprenticeship programs and vocational schools. And they'd get you ready for the world of shop - the blue-collar factory job. But think about what Cristo Rey is doing; the teachers are saying, "When you're an architect, when you're an engineer, when you're a doctor," and they're putting the students in white-collar offices.

Smith: And this workplace-education concept is not limited just to high schools?

Farrell: Absolutely not. It's not just about giving high school students a good start, but how do you give people that are in dead-end jobs climb a career ladder? And here's the problem Stephen; most job training programs take place in a classroom. And if you didn't do well in the classroom when you were a youngster, why are you going to thrive in that environment when you're an adult? So what the "Workplace U" concept does is it says, "Here's your opportunity. And here's why you're learning it; you're at work." And then you go to the classroom to learn how to advance yourself, but you know why you're doing it.

Smith: Chris, the 21st century economy is often called the "knowledge economy." Where are the jobs going to be for these adults with less education?

Farrell: There are going to be plenty of jobs in the growing sectors of our economy such as education and health care. The real issue is the "opportunity gap." Here are these workers without the skills to take these jobs, and if they can gain the skills, the jobs will be there.

Smith: Thanks very much. That's Chris Farrell, our economics analyst, and a contributing editor to Business Week magazine.

[Music: Bedda at Home - Jill Scott - Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2 - Hidden Beach Records]

In suburban Seattle, Washington, Candace Picazo is trying to bridge her own, personal opportunity gap. Candace works part-time at a big hospital where she's a housekeeper.

Candace Picazo: I like to have things very organized, and I'm just really kind of a, kind of a neat freak.

Seems like a neat freak is just the person you'd want for a housekeeper. Candace starts her morning in the hospital's laundry room. She sets up the cleaning cart so everything's in order; cleaning fluids arranged, rags folded and stacked.

Picazo: We use bath blankets that we, that we cut up, and they're very absorbent and they clean well. Then I think, like something as simple as this can actually really affect your day at work.

Candace spends the next six hours at the hospital dusting, wiping, emptying trash.

Picazo: [Door knock] Housekeeping.

Her long brown hair is gathered in a bun with curly tendrils spilling everywhere.

Picazo: We are in the birth center and I am going to touch up on the offices of the doctors. And I need some gloves.

Candace Picazo comes from a working-class background. Her mom and stepfather have factory jobs. Her husband works in his family's Mexican restaurant. Candace was a good student in high school - she's actually one of the few in her family to graduate. But she was not very interested in college.

Picazo: I didn't have a big college dream. I was kind of, I was kind of tired of all the homework that I had and I was thinking, "OK I'm going to take a break." I started working and I met my husband and we had our baby and then my husband was goading me to, to get into a hospital, like, "I'd love to see you as nurse." And I'm like, "Well I guess we can try and get my foot in the door, you know at least."

Working as a housekeeper is OK, but it's only part-time. And in hospitals, the better jobs involve taking care of patients. Those jobs require technical and medical skills you can't learn by working on a hospital cleaning crew. You get them at community college - but Candace can't afford the tuition. So it would seem that she is stuck in a dead-end job.

Laura Chenven: In this country we're used to thinking that everybody has a chance to make it. But we aren't always used to thinking that everybody deserves a second chance to make it as well.

Laura Chenven is an official with the Healthcare Career Advancement Program. It's a national organization that helps hospital workers get promoted.

Chenven: I think a lot of us when we get to work, we kind of grow up there. We begin see what we do and don't want to do. You know, what do I want to be when I grow up? Don't we ask ourselves those questions all throughout our life? People need a chance to go back to school and to get that second chance.

For Candace, the second chance came in a notice stapled to her paycheck. The state of Washington offers a free program she can use to prepare for an entry-level position in patient care. Candace is studying to be a personal care assistant (PCA). She takes classes and gets her training at the hospital.

Picazo: We go get vitals for our patients, and then pass ice water, help them wash for breakfast, order breakfast, and feed those who can't eat themselves, you know.

Picazo: You're all ready! Good.

Patient: I'm ready. And here we go.

Picazo: All right. Do you have everything? You're not forgetting anything, right?

Patient: Nothing.

Picazo: Oh good.

Candace wheels an elderly man who's just been discharged to the hospital door. She's clearly grateful to be working directly with patients.

Picazo: It feels like I can kind of help them, help them heal. Because we're like the first line of contact that they have, when they get in here. And we're the ones who are closest to them, and taking care of them.

Hospitals in Washington state have learned that it's better to promote from within because at least a third of the recruits who come fresh from nursing school end up quitting in the first two years. Existing staffers like Candace Picazo are a better bet because they are used to the intensity of hospital work. Jaime Garcia of the Washington State Hospital Association says the nursing workforce is also growing older - just as hospitals are bracing for a surge in business.

Jaime Garcia: You have the first wave of the baby boomers beginning to retire. Well, as the boomer generation ages, people over 65 use three times the amount of health care. That's why you still see towers being built at hospitals, in spite of the recession. Because they have to get ready for the wave of people coming out.

So health care is a growth industry for working-class people even if they don't have a four-year bachelor's degree. Experts say the key for these workers is getting a community college certificate or other kind of professional credential after finishing high school. Jaime Garcia says when hospitals help train those workers they get a more diverse health care staff.

Garcia: Because the future workforce is going to be multilingual, it's going to be of color, and it's going to be probably from lower socio-economic background. Because that's where the workers are.

[Clytie Causing calls participant names, applause]

At a party at the union hall, Candace Picazo and about 80 others are celebrating the end of their first year of health care training. These students are working their way up from places like the parking garage, the lunch-room, and the laundry.

Causing: …and Candace Picazo.

Candace's two-year-old daughter is dancing in the aisle. Her parents are beaming. Candace's mom, Maria Hamshaw, never finished high school. And now her daughter is a college student.

Maria Hamshaw: We're just very excited for her that she's gone through this program and succeeded. And she's doing the right kind of job for her, because she's so caring, and loving and helpful and wants to help people all the time. So she's in the right field.

Candace now has a personal care assistant license. Her hospital is opening a new wing this winter. She'll be on the short list for a full-time PCA job. If she gets it, she'll also get a hefty raise and health insurance for her whole family. Candace Picazo's long term goal is to work and study her way up to being a fully-qualified - and much in demand - professional nurse.

[Music: Grosse Reader - Hausmeister - Water-Wasser - Plop ]

You're listening to "Workplace U," a documentary from American RadioWorks. I'm Stephen Smith. Coming up: getting back on the job when you're down and out.

Russell Brockman: I get up at 5:00 every morning and I catch three buses to get here. I leave here about ten minutes to 12 and catch two buses to get to work. So all together in a day's time, I'm on the bus six-and-a-half hours to go to school and go to work, to better my life.

You can see slideshows about school life at Holy Family Cristo Rey and the health care training program in Seattle, at our Web site: While you're there you can listen to this program again, and subscribe to our podcast to access our entire catalogue of more than 100 documentaries. That's at

Support for this program comes from the Northwest Area Foundation Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute. The research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.


From American Public Media this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "Workplace U," U as in "university." I'm Stephen Smith. We're taking a close look at a movement in this country to merge the workplace and the classroom. In a moment we'll look at a project here in the Twin Cities that helps chronically unemployed people get back into the workforce. First we're going to take a moment to again bring in our economics editor and analyst Chris Farrell. Hi Chris.

Smith: Chris, behind many of the stories we're hearing in this program is something called generational poverty, which is when a family has been poor for two generations or more. Why is this kind of poverty so persistent?

Farrell: Well the odds are stacked against the kids. I mean, they grow up in bad neighborhoods or in poor rural areas. Often they have poor schools, there's lots of crime, drugs, alcohol, very few role models and these are isolated communities with not a whole lot of knowledge about what's going on in the outside world

Smith: So it's so common to hear people wonder why poor folks don't simply just move to better parts of town and get a job. Just leave that bad stuff behind.

Farrell: Well, many people do. But many find it impossible. Where are those jobs? And it turns out, you know, middle class folks usually assume that poor people have character flaws. It's their fault. But so many work values are learned at the home, as you're growing up. If you don't have parents that are teaching you things such as being on time, getting things done, taking initiative. Well, it's tough to learn those things in school, particularly in poor neighborhoods.

Smith: So what's to be done?

Farrell: What's to be done is to create the belief in opportunity. So you concentrate on transferring what the social scientists call the soft skills and the particular technical knowledge to help break the cycle of generational poverty.

Smith: And so, the argument goes, that by investing in programs that get people back into the job market, there's a direct payback to the community.

Farrell: As they're starting to earn an income and they have a steady job, they can be taxpayers. They can also become, over time, homeowners. And perhaps most importantly, if they're taxpayers and they're homeowners and they have a steady income, that's what their children will learn. And the cycle of poverty will be broken. And instead we'll be talking about climbing up the ladder toward the middle class.

Smith: Thanks very much. That's American Public Media's economics editor and analyst Chris Farrell

Farrell: Thanks a lot, Stephen.

Brockman: Where my ice cream you were supposed to get me the other day? My cookies and cream? What happened to it?

[Children giggling]

Smith: It's a warm July evening in the city. A few friends and their kids are sharing takeout dinner on the front porch of a shabby Minneapolis duplex. The kids are trying to coax the grown-ups into a water fight.

Boy: I'mma get you today.

Brockman: You going to get me? All right I'm on. It's on. Let's do this.

Girl: OK, let me go get some water, OK?

Brockman: No, not right now I'm busy. We got company OK?

Girl: OK.

Just a few months ago, the four kids and their mom, Samantha McNeal, lived in a homeless shelter. Then Sam got on public assistance and scraped together enough money to rent this apartment. Sam is 27, and she's been struggling with poverty for a long time. She got pregnant in high school but didn't drop out.

Samantha McNeal: My daughter was 2 months at the time and I kept going and I still graduated with my class, went to prom and everything. So that was a while ago [laughs].

Brockman: - Biggie. Biggie! You got two slices pizza in microwave.

Biggie Williams is also on the porch. And he's built like his name, tall and big. Biggie is 22. He's a friend of Sam's and he also grew up poor.

Biggie Williams: All my life I've been in a single parent home. Live with my mother and two sisters. She gets a job every now and then but she's mostly on disability because she's diabetic.

Now some people who grow up poor say that, as kids, they never really knew how little their families had. Not Biggie.

Williams: No, I never wanted the life I had. I was teased because of the clothes I wore. It wasn't the best clothes, it wasn't the best shoes. So I always told myself I'mma strive to do better. I'mma strive to have more.

After Biggie finished high school he had a promising factory job for a while. But drinking got in the way of working.

Williams: I hit a spiral where I didn't care about anything. Just sit in the house not looking for jobs not trying to do anything about it.

Boy: We're having a water fight.

Brockman: Why don't you throw some water on her?

And finally, Russell Brockman is also on the porch. He stays at Sam's place sometimes when he doesn't have somewhere else to go. Russell is an amiable 44-year-old guy, and even bigger than Biggie. Russell is the heart of the party.

Brockman: We eat and play cards, dominoes, dance. Drink.

McNeal: And a lot of eating. Lots and lots of eating.

Russell, Sam and Biggie became friends at a local anti-poverty program. They are among the hard-core unemployed - people with limited skills, spotty work experience, and grim prospects for the future. All three of them want a job, but their bad work histories make it hard to find and keep one - especially in a recession. In Russell's case, a big problem is his criminal history. Many businesses won't hire felons. Russell was in a street gang called the Black Disciples back in Chicago, where he grew up.

Brockman: Started off stealing cars and beating people up. And it escalated.

Armed robbery, attempted murder, nothing more worse than that. But it led to some pretty graphic things.

Russell Brockman has spent nearly half his adult life in prison. He moved to Minneapolis a few years ago to live with his sister. Being an ex-con made it hard to find a job. So he turned, again, to selling drugs and stealing cars.

Brockman: Prior to a year ago, you wouldn't have wanted to know me. I was not a nice guy [laughs]. I mean I was a drug dealer, I was mean. Unless you was offering me drugs, or sex or money, I didn't really want nothing to do with you. If I couldn't profit from a conversation with you, there wasn't nothing for us to talk about. I was just evil, you know.

Then Russell vowed to get clear of trouble, to stop being evil. Street crime is generally a young man's game. As Russell's neared middle age he grew weary of the relentless threat of violence.

Brockman: Up all night, watching your back all day. Carrying two, three guns. And who gonna try to rob you? Or you see somebody you done robbed. No I don't miss none of that.

Eight months ago, Russell found his way to place called Twin Cities RISE! It's a non-profit organization that helps people like Russell, Sam and Biggie find and keep a steady job.

Peggy Yusten: To transform and change someone's life takes time.

Peggy Yusten runs Twin Cities RISE! She says most students take at least a year to learn the skills they need for a decent job.

Yusten: We have to work at giving them a lot of confidence; and helping them be sure of themselves as they go out into this world. And we do it by setting some pretty high standards here.

Standards like a dress code, a rigid attendance policy, and drug testing.

Yusten: And we say to them: We're just like the employers out there. And you have to meet those standards. If you're successful here, you will be successful when you leave here.

Rise tells its students, including Russell, Biggie and Sam, that they'll need to master soft skills like appearance and punctuality if they want to climb out of poverty. And Rise will help them learn technical skills, too, things they missed or failed to learn in school. In Russell Brockman's case, he's discovering how to send an e-mail attachment.

Brockman: What that say?

Janine Johnican: Microsoft Office Word. OK, now go see if you can find it.

Brockman: Go find what?

Johnican: Your attachment in Word.

Brockman: How do I get to Word?

Johnican: Go to start.

Before he started at Rise, Russell had never set hands on a computer except maybe to steal it. Now he's getting tested on the thing.

Brockman: Word documents. Cut and pasting and folders. Put this in this file and that in that file and now the pressure's on cause now not only can I do it, but now you gotta do it in two minutes or less.

There are a few hundred students in this program at Rise. They go to half-day classes four times a week. In addition to computer literacy, Rise students take writing and math, and classes on personal empowerment and critical thinking.

John Landretti: Let's see. Hey Russell, you ready to go?

Brockman: Yes sir.

Landretti: OK. Did you get to do your practice?

Brockman: Absolutely.

Landretti: OK, great.

Russell is preparing for the public speaking class. The teacher explains that the class is meant to help students develop the poise and confidence they'll need to get a good job.

William Clark: Because you don't know what that human resource person is going to ask you. To think on your feet, to formulate a speech right away. That's a technique that really will help you during your job interview.

In today's speech exercise, Biggie takes the podium to formally introduce Russell to the class.

Williams: Growing up in Chicago, Russell's life was centered around football. His lifelong dream was to play for the Dallas Cowboys football team. OK. Today Russell will tell you - tell us - about two of his favorite players. Please give a warm welcome to Russell


Brockman: The first mess-up of the day was I gave him the wrong one. That was going to be my original one but I changed it.

What Russell means is he accidentally attached the wrong introduction in his e-mail to Biggie. Russell's speech is not about football.

Brockman: Today I'm going to talk to you about one of my favorite games to play. And it's called dominoes. Dominoes is a game played where you do a lot of adding, and you start a game off with double sixes.

Russell's colleagues are not exactly riveted by the subject, but he passes speech class and can move on to resume writing and mock interviews.

[Music: Freedom Jazz Dance - Lonnie Smith - Jungle Soul - Palmetto Records]

There are thousands of job training programs for poor people in the United States. But a lot of them prepare their clients for the lowest end of the employment market: Low skill, low paying jobs with no benefits and no future. Twin Cities RISE! aims higher: Jobs that pay at least $20,000 a year, come with opportunity for advancement, and offer benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan. The program is funded by donations and foundations. And, like a lot of job programs, Rise also gets money from state government - $9,000 per student. But here's another difference: Rise only gets that money if the student succeeds.

Yusten: The concept is you only pay us when we place somebody in that job. And when that person is there for a year. You're not paying us for the process to get them there. You're only paying us for the outcome. And that's the way our program was started. We're about an outcome and the outcome is a living wage job.

Rise students start off with paid internships in dozens of local businesses, from big corporations like General Mills and Target to small companies and non-profit organizations. By mid-summer Russell Brockman is ready for his internship. To make it to classes and then way across town to his job, Russell puts in a 17-hour day.

Brockman: I get up at 5:00 every morning. I catch 3 buses to get here. I leave here about 10 minutes to 12 and catch 2 buses to get to work. So altogether, in a day's time, I'm on a bus 6 ½ hrs. Go to school and go to work to better my life. I'm working at a company called Bridging. They give furniture free to the less fortunate.

Brockman: [Yells to a co-worker] Three boxes, one bag, two pictures. One huge but light sofa.

Russell is a big man, over 6 feet tall and at least 300 pounds. He is in constant motion at the Bridging warehouse, heaving furniture onto a truck, wheeling the dolly down the aisle where the boss calls out for another load.

Supervisor: Ah, there's a footstool in 317.

Brockman: Anything else for me?

Supervisor: Kitchen table. 309, 309.

Russell's blue t-shirt is soaked with sweat and his bald head is shiny but he's almost always smiling and joking around. He's a favorite of the staff.

Fran Heitzman: Oh, I love Russell. He's worked so hard and he's such a gentleman. I wish we had a job opening for him, I'd hire him tomorrow morning.

This is Bridging's founder, Fran Heitzman.

Heitzman: I've been in business all my life, hired people all my life and I can tell somebody who's a good worker in 5 minutes. I'm a pretty good judge. And that's a good one there. Anybody gets him on his workforce, they got a gem.

[Music: Have a Little Faith in Me - Bill Frisell - Have a Little Faith - Nonesuch]

And for the next six weeks, Russell is a good worker. But even a gem has flaws. One day in August, Biggie Williams was on the job at Bridging. Russell was there too.

Williams: He was in the back of the warehouse picking up some items for a pic-up and saw or heard the police out front. And left out the back door. And while the police was searching the warehouse, he got away.

Turns out Russell robbed a bank the day before. It didn't take long for police to find and arrest him. Afterwards, Russell told me he just strode in off a Minneapolis street and handed the teller a note demanding a thousand dollars.

Brockman: Give me 10 one-hundred-dollar bills, or get shot.

Smith: And did you have a gun?

Brockman: No, no. No sir. [laughs]

Smith: They gave you the money, you walked out of the bank…

Brockman: I walked out and then I started running. Then I heard something go pop. Thought I was being shot at [laughs]. You know? What the hell? Then my pocket started smoking.

Smith: Your pocket started smoking?

Brockman: Yeah, it was a dye pack.

Smith: A dye pack was in there with the bills.

Brockman: Yep, so I reached in there and grabbed it outta there. Burnt my hand. Threw it and kept running. Made it a couple blocks, hopped on a bus and went home.

Russell was arrested the next day. His handprint on the bank counter matched his police records.

The evening after Russell's arrest, Biggie and Sam are hanging out on the front porch, trying to make sense of what's Russell's done.

McNeal: If he needed money or anything, he could have came to us. You know, it's all types of things that he could have did instead of that. So to find that out is, I don't know, I'm kind of heartbroken. Because my kids love him, I love him. You know he's like my big brother so I don't know, I'm just kind of stuck right now.

Here's the really crazy part. Russell robbed the bank the day he and Biggie got their internship paychecks.

Williams: The thing that just keeps going through my head: He had money. He had money in his hand, why would he need to do that? For what?!

Well, the fact is that climbing your way out of long-term poverty can be a mighty struggle. And for people like Russell, there are always familiar old demons ready to pull you back down.

Brockman: August 5, I left home early to go cash my check and go to work early, that was my plan. I was waiting on the bus and a prostitute walked up to me. She looked damn good. She propositioned me and I took her proposition. So we went to the liquor store, went to somebody's house, and had alcohol and sex and crack cocaine.

After it was all gone I left, I was trying to go home but I decided, you know, I was still very high and the cravings got the best of me so I said go in that bank.

Smith: The cravings got the best of you so you went to the bank.

Brockman: yep

Smith: Had you been doing crack up until this time?

Brockman: No I had relapsed that day. I had two years 11 months. Thirty days away from three years.

Smith: And you were taking the paycheck you had made at Rise.

Brockman: Mmm-hmm.

Smith: And that's sort of how it all happened.

Brockman: Yep.

Smith: Did you have any inkling of this coming on?

Brockman: Nope. I was happy, waiting to get to work early so I could a few extra hours.

Russell confessed to the robbery. And his public defender convinced the court that Russell needs treatment instead of jail while he's waiting to be sentenced. So Russell's living in a half-way house. He knows he's disappointed the staff at Twin Cities RISE!, not to mention his family, his friends and himself.

Brockman: I feel like an idiot. What hurt most is giving up all the clean time.

Smith: I'm sorry?

Brockman: What hurt the most was giving up the clean time. All the time I had clean and sober, that hurt. And then to go do something as stupid as that. I never in my life dreamed about robbing a bank, you know, so.

Smith: This is the first time you've robbed a bank?

Brockman: Oh yes sir [laughs]. Yes sir.

Russell expects to get sent back to prison, but he doesn't know for how long. It depends on whether the court decides he's a career criminal. It could be just a few years. Or he could get 20. And the folks at Twin Cities RISE! says Russell will be welcome to come back when he gets out. After all, he was an ex-con the first time they accepted him.

While Russell waits for sentencing, his friends Biggie and Sam are moving forward. Today at RISE they're each doing a mock job interview.

Andrew Geiser: So Samantha, tell me a bit about yourself.

McNeal: For starters I am applying for assistant in administrative work. I have a a lot of experience…

Williams: I have five years entry level to intermediate mechanical engineering and fabrication. More recently I have a year's worth of warehouse experience.

Geiser: Have you ever been convicted of felony or misdemeanor?

McNeal: Yes I've have two misdemeanors which were in theft. Now, the first one was six years ago…

Gesier: Can you tell me about a time when you felt a customer was being unreasonable?

Williams: I deal with customers on a daily basis…

Of the 91 people who started at Twin Cities RISE! with Biggie, Sam and Russell, 63 are still in the program eight months later. Three of them now have full-time jobs with decent pay and benefits. And they're paying taxes. Rise officials say by helping people get off government support, the program saves the state of Minnesota a million dollars a year.

[Music: Bongo Joe - Galactic - Ruckus - Sanctuary Records]

Biggie Williams moved up from his internship at Bridging to a regular, part-time job. Biggie says giving out furniture to people in need reminds him of the days when he slept on a cold floor with no blanket. Biggie's determined not to drift back to that life. He says his drinking is under control.

Williams: It's coming to the point in time in my life where I need to step up or just lay down and let everything trample you. This situation I'm in right now, I've been working on it for a year or so now. And it's looking up. Everything's starting to move in a better direction. So, I'm not going to stop now.

Samantha McNeal just started her first internship through Rise. She's an office assistant in a Lutheran church. Sam's boss, Margie, is showing her around.

SFX: Oh and one of the other things we have to do is make sure there are enough envelopes in the sanctuary and visitors' cards.

Sam says the public speaking class at Rise was especially helpful. She needed to get past her shyness and insecurity about being able to do the work. Sam says she also needed to learn that she's the only person who can make her life better.

McNeal: In a few years, I would love to be - well, I'm going to take that back - I WILL be at a good job, office job, that I really enjoy long-term, making over $10 an hour and have my own place with me and my kids. Hopefully Russell and everybody will stay next door [laughs]. So, that's what I'm looking at.

[Music: Devil's Haircut - Lonnie Smith - Boogaloo to Beck - Scufflin' Records]

Americans like to think of their country as a land of opportunity. But for low-income families, getting ahead is tough. The research is clear. People born poor are likely to stay poor. And it's hard to see a way out when you grow up in a bad neighborhood, go to a weak school, don't have successful people around you.

And then when you look for a job, nobody's hiring.

Yet this is also a country where employers say they need more skilled workers than they can find.

The campus of Workplace U may be a good place for jobseekers and companies to meet.

Workplace U isn't a real university, of course. It's an idea. People behind the idea say it can help reach millions of Americans that traditional education is failing.

In Workplace U, low-income high school students get a wider view of the world when they work with lawyers and architects.

Janitors and housekeepers get new careers because they can go to college where they work.

And chronically poor people with scant work histories get a second chance by learning basic skills they missed in school. And then use that knowledge at work.

Workplace U inspires students to think about the future. Believing in a better future, with a real job, can be a first step on the ladder out of poverty towards a better life.

[ARW theme music]

You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Workplace U." It was produced by Laurie Stern and me, Stephen Smith, with help from Chris Farrell. It was edited by Catherine Winter. The American RadioWorks team includes Ellen Guettler, Ochen Kaylan, Frankie Barnhill, Craig Thorson and Judy McAlpine. Special thanks to Suzanne Pekow and Marc Sanchez.

And one note of disclosure to pass along: the founder and chair of Twin Cities RISE! is businessman Steven Rothschild. He is also on the board of trustees of our parent company, American Public Media.

We have photos of Twin Cities RISE! and of Russell at work - and at court - at our Web site, You can also find an essay there by Chris Farrell on why we are all affected by workplace-education programs like those you've heard today. Find that and more at

Support for this program comes from the Northwest Area Foundation Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation.

American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute. The research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

Back to Workplace U.

©2018 American Public Media