Merlene Davis: Helping teens reach hopes and dreams is LEEP's goal

Ryan Schulz, left, a participant in the LEEP program at the Community Action Council, talked with Catrena Bowman, a program administrator.
Ryan Schulz, left, a participant in the LEEP program at the Community Action Council, talked with Catrena Bowman, a program administrator.

Ryan Schulz, 18, has attended 11 schools in his lifetime — six in Texas, one in Missouri, one in Indiana, and three in Lexington.

Because of those moves and some other issues, Schulz recently learned that he was two years behind in school. The idea of graduating with much younger students didn't sit well with him.

"School wasn't going so good for me," he said. "But I wanted to graduate with my peers."

Recently, Schulz decided to give the Learning, Education, Experience and Post-Secondary program a try.

Catrena Bowman, one of the program administrators and developers, said the program targets lower-income teens ages 16 to 18 who are seeking more out of life.

A project of the Community Action Council, in partnership with Bluegrass Community and Technical College and the Central Kentucky Jobs Center, the project is designed to help teens wanting their GED, a direct avenue to employment, or give them help reaching higher-education goals.

In LEEP, participants are tested for their ability levels and questioned about their aspirations.

"We just finished the enrollment phase, and we have 20 participants who are in school and 20 who are out of school. And it is a really good mix of almost 50-50" girls and boys, she said.

Some of the school students are struggling, but not all of them, she said. Some are capable of moving into higher education but don't know how to apply for financial aid or how to save for college. Other participants have dropped out but want to get back in the game. They will learn how to set routines at home and to budget time and money, develop a résumé and learn interviewing skills for employment or college.

Those who don't want to go to school may attend monthly life-skills workshops or be given job-shadowing placements. Not everyone wants to continue their educations after high school or a GED.

"One of the students is interested in auto sales," Bowman said, and that student will be matched with an automobile salesman to explore how the business works.

Another student who hopes to be a tattoo artist will be directed toward entrepreneurship and being a small-business owner with the guidance of an established tattoo artist, she said.

Others will be offered paid work experience in areas including manufacturing to see whether it matches envisioned career goals.

Through it all, they will have access to tutors and mentors to help them meet their goals.

Plus, each participant gets $100 when he or she signs on to the program, and a similar amount at various steps along the way until the sum totals $850. By June, program officials hope all participants will be high school graduates or have GED certificates.

"If they drop out, we will continue to provide services to them," Bowman said. "We will continue to come to them and check with them. They just won't get their incentives."

Schulz won't be one of them. He plans to take his GED test later this month and then take courses in computer science.

With either a two-year certificate or bachelor's degree, he hopes to find a job in that field. Without LEEP, he said, he would probably still be in high school, trying to graduate as soon as possible.

"It would be really amazing to have a job working with computers," he said.