How One Tech Nonprofit is Working to Break the Cycle of Poverty in New York

Jan 20, 2016

Per Scholas is a nonprofit in New York City that offers free training to low-income adults of all ages interested in the technology sector. The organization recently launched a program aimed specifically at young people, age 18 to 24, eager to start a tech career. This story is part of a series on the innovative ways that 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees, supported by America’s Promise Alliance and the Citi Foundation, are placing low-income young adults on a path toward college and career success.

A Job Changes Everything

When students walk through the doors of Per Scholas, a nonprofit that trains unemployed or underemployed adults for the technology sector, chances are they make less than $7,000 a year. But by the time they finish a course like IT Support or Software Testing, there’s an 80 percent chance they’ll find a job making nearly six times as much.

Per Scholas is headquartered in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the country. About 90 percent of Per Scholas students are people of color, and all of them come from low-income families.

At Per Scholas, all training programs are free, but that doesn’t make them easy.

Students must treat the program like a full-time job, showing up Monday to Friday, from 9:00 to 4:00 for 8 to 14 weeks. Each week, students attend four days of hands-on technical instruction and one day of career development instruction. Evenings are for homework and studying.

Per Scholas student Jeffrey Meregildo, 26, said the rigorous coursework and high expectations are what push students to succeed.

"A lot of us come from backgrounds that taught us not to expect much,” Meregildo said. “By placing a high expectation on us and placing a high expectation on ourselves, we're able to go above what we thought was possible."

Per Scholas doesn’t stop at preparing students for the technology sector. The organization has a dedicated team of six people who help the program’s graduates find jobs in the field.

“The team develops relationships with employers hiring for technical positions, sources job orders, and then refers grads to specific jobs based on their skillset and fit,” Per Scholas’s managing director Kelly Richardson said. “More than 70 percent of our 400-plus New York job placements last year came from this process.”

Graduates have gone on to work as IT and desktop support specialists, field technicians and help-desk engineers at companies like Barclays, Time Warner Cable and Bloomberg.

Partnering to Reach Young People Without Diplomas

Leaders at Per Scholas recently launched a program called Tech Portal to target young people age 18-24 who never graduated high school or lack literacy skills. The goal: to engage 250 young adults in the pilot, then enroll as many of them as possible in Per Scholas’s regular training classes.

Tech Portal is a unique partnership, created with support from the Youth Opportunity Fund and alliances with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and The Bronx Youth Center (operated by The Door).

Here’s how it works: NYCHA recruits young adults who are residents of public housing to attend information sessions they co-host with The Door and Per Scholas. If young people like what they hear, they can take one of three paths.

For students who need a high school equivalency degree, the Bronx Youth Center is there to help them out. If they struggle with literacy, the TechBridge program, a sort of pre-Per Scholas training, prepares them for the rigorous coursework of Per Scholas. And finally, if students already have a diploma or equivalent and have no trouble with literacy, they can apply directly to take a Per Scholas course.

The Ability to Connect

While Per Scholas doesn’t have a formal mentorship program, the organization understands how important it is for young people to have a consistent relationship with an adult they trust. In the past few years, staff have modified the curriculum to maximize one-on-one interaction between students and teachers.

“More than 30 percent of staff are graduates of the program,” Richardson said. “These instructors don’t just bring industry knowledge to the table. Having been in the students’ shoes, they understand what’s happening outside the classroom as well. Having that relatability factor is really important, that ability to connect.”

Recent Per Scholas graduate Naya Moss, 21, said the organization didn’t just help her find a job. They helped her find a home. 

“There were a lot of times when I didn’t have money to eat,” she notes on the organization’s website. “If I didn’t have Per Scholas, I would be homeless. If it wasn’t for them, I would just be getting by. Per Scholas helped me get on my feet.”

For more Per Scholas graduate success stories, visit their Student Ambassadors page.

To learn more about nonprofits working to place low-income young adults on a path to success, check out other Youth Opportunity Fund grantees.