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Offering a way back to hopes of college

A program targets some promising young people whose lives hit a bump on the path to higher education.

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Boston's downtown pedestrian mall teems with young adults, many on their way to or from a minimum-wage job. But sandwiched between the RadioShack and the Burger King there's a fifth-floor suite where better jobs finally seem within reach for a couple dozen 18- to 24-year-olds.

They may not have dared to imagine that before they found Year Up, which offers college-level technology classes, professional and personal development, and paid apprenticeships. Participants must be high school graduates or have GEDs - and some even have a few college courses under their belts - but what largely defines them is a desire for higher education that has been thwarted by circumstances.

Some, like Ousdhane Chadic, are immigrants who need to earn money or boost their communication skills before plunging into college full time. Others, like Carlos Torres, long for college and higher salaries, but already have children to support. Still others have had to overcome homelessness or addiction.

What Year Up offers all these young people is a bridge to cross that "opportunity divide," says executive director Gerald Chertavian, an entrepreneur who used profits from the sale of an Internet firm to launch the nonprofit four years ago. Mr. Chertavian had nurtured the concept since the 1980s, when he was a Big Brother in a New York public housing complex. The people he met there "were wonderfully gifted, intelligent, and savvy - they just didn't have a path into the mainstream," he says. "It was unacceptable.

America has nobody to waste."

Immigrants and racial minorities are the fastest growing groups in the United States, and "they're getting the least amount of education at a time when our knowledge-based economy is increasingly demanding higher-level skills," he says. "So you have a divide between people who can get into the game and those who can't."

Employers, educators, and government officials are all looking for solutions to that disconnect. "We're struggling as a society to reinvent vocational education," says Howard Husock, director of the Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship at the Manhattan Institute. "It used to be there were trades, there were factories, people had a sense of how to do this. And now we've got such a changing workforce all the time."


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