[Hpn] High-Tech Job training offered to San Jose's homeless and poor
Tue, 26 Jun 2001 11:33:00 -0700
Published Sunday, June 24, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News
Technical success in training workers
SAN JOSE ACADEMIES PUTTING THE HOMELESS AND POOR ON TRACK FOR JOBS WITH
BY JANICE ROMBECK
San Jose's experiment to grow local technology workers has taken root in the
most unlikely of garden plots -- one of the city's poorest neighborhoods and
the area's largest homeless shelter.
While the economic downturn has hampered efforts to employ graduates of the
two Cisco Networking Academies, organizers of the pilot program are using
other measuring sticks to evaluate success.
Most of the students faced personal challenges so enormous that passing the
class is a major achievement. And some are using the experience as a
springboard to more tech training.
To date, 14 people have graduated from the Cisco Networking Academy --
offered in a tiny room just beyond the rows of beds at the Emergency Housing
Consortium shelter. Four have passed a certification test to become
networking associates. Twenty more students are entering the second semester
of the 10-month program.
At the Mayfair academy in East San Jose, 44 recently graduated and are
preparing to take the certification test. Two new 20-student classes started
Monday, and four more are scheduled for the fall and winter. And the city's
Redevelopment Agency, which is putting nearly $1 million into the program,
plans to start training academies in other needy neighborhoods.
``When we started the program, the local tech economy was going great guns.
The sky was the limit,'' said Jaimie Alvarado, project manager at Mayfair.
``If someone had gotten a certificate they could have gotten a job. That
isn't the case anymore.''
Recent Mayfair graduate Diana Enciso knows she might have to wait longer to
get a $50,000 a year job, but passing the class has given her confidence to
go on to junior college for an associate degree.
``If I can accomplish this, I can accomplish anything,'' said Enciso, 28,
who was working at Wal-Mart and caring for an ailing mother when she began
the class in September.
The Mayfair demographics show the everyday challenges faced by its
residents. In the mostly Latino neighborhood that spawned Cesar Chavez, the
civil rights activist, 25 percent live below the poverty level, under a
median household income of $36,712. According to a 1997 neighborhood survey,
72 percent of Mayfair residents drop out before they finish high school.
Only 6 percent of residents have four-year college degrees. More than 60
percent are renters, and many have limited English-speaking skills.
Unemployment and crime are major concerns.
``We have a whole range of really tough stories,'' Alvarado said of the
students. ``Most were working, many had families. At least one student was
homeless for the first three months of the program and was sleeping in the
streets. Several were first-generation immigrants. For them, language was
Enciso, like others at the Mayfair program, was overwhelmed at first.
``There were times I just wanted to drop out,'' she said, especially when
her mother, Dolores Armenta, needed hip replacement surgery.
``I'd work from 5 a.m. to 1:30, go to class from 2 to 5, come home, try to
keep up the house and clean, then rush over to the hospital to visit my mom.
Sometimes I'd spend the night there,'' Enciso said. ``In between I was
trying to study.''
At the academy at the housing consortium's regional reception center on
Little Orchard Street, believed to be the first academy in a shelter,
students also faced tremendous personal challenges.
Almost all were recovering from addictions, some had served jail time and
others suffered from depression. They were single moms, fathers trying to
support families and even one man who needed to leave the class for 60 days
to serve a sentence for a parole violation. Though they were given
transitional housing -- a cubbyhole offering more privacy than a shelter
floor bed -- studying was difficult.
``The hardest thing was to keep them in housing while they were in class,''
said Amy Estes, project manager for the housing consortium's academy. ``Many
were transitioning from one place to another. One place didn't work out, so
they ended up back here.''
Add to that a fast-paced technical curriculum that prepares students to
install and maintain a small- to medium-size network -- the hardware that
allow computers to communicate with each other. Two years of material was
crammed into 10 months, with students committing three hours a night, four
nights a week in class. On top of that was homework. Many spent Saturdays in
the computer labs.
``Most people with stable housing wouldn't do it,'' Estes said.
``It's very, very tough,'' said Louis Sanchez, instructor at the shelter
academy. ``When they come into this, regardless of what's going on in their
lives, they have to really focus on this.''
Mark Alexander, who had been homeless for two years, chose to remain on the
streets for a good portion of the program. A San Jose State University
dropout, Alexander would study at the university library until it closed.
Then he would resume studying in a lighted entrance way on campus. Sometimes
he would sleep on the roof of a nearby elementary school building.
``The hardest part was first semester,'' he said. ``I wasn't computer
literate at the time. . . . They were introducing concepts that were totally
foreign to me.''
Jody Berridge, 32, had a roof over her head through the transitional housing
program, but also had a child to raise. Her son, Justin, is now 12. ``I was
uneducated and couldn't hold down a job,'' she said. ``I didn't really even
make it out of junior high.''
She kept up with the class and also took computer courses at DeAnza College.
She graduated in December and is hoping to get a job on the computer help
desk at DeAnza.
Return on investment
Program dropout rates were high, but Callie Struggs of the Redevelopment
Agency looks at the financial return of the shelter's first class in these
terms: The agency spent $4,300 a person for training that would cost $10,000
to $14,000 on the open market. If 10 graduates get jobs at a $40,000 salary,
the agency would get its return on the investment in three months. Adding
the savings on shelter beds and other services for the homeless, the return
would come in six weeks.
Beyond just finances, the academy ``has put a different face on the homeless
population throughout the world,'' Struggs told the graduates at a ceremony
in December. Media attention came from as far away as Japan.
Learning lessons from the shelter academy, the Mayfair class started with
basic computer skills before jumping into the more technical course. The
shelter academy's current classes are doing that as well.
In the Mayfair neighborhood, Alvarado thinks the program has a long way to
go. There are 1,600 households and 44 have been reached.
``Sometimes it takes convincing to get folks to sign up for the program,''
Alvarado said. ``Little by little, one person at a time, we're changing mind
Struggs would like to change the mind sets of employers: ``We'd like
employers to embrace the concept and experiment with a homegrown, local work
For more information on the training academies, call the Redevelopment
Agency at (408) 794-1168.
© 2001 The Mercury News
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