03/01/2013 10:00 am ET | Updated May 01, 2013

Taking ACTION in Arkansas Now

Taking ACTION in Arkansas Now

As an Opportunity Nation ACTION Community leader in South Arkansas, I was elated that President Obama recently shared ambitious plans to strengthen communities, build pathways for young people and promote postsecondary education. If the proposals that our president presented in his State of the Union address are implemented, there is no doubt that our nation would see a brighter future. In fact, communities across America are already hard at work on these goals, including here in Arkansas. Specifically in Ouachita County, I've connected my efforts to support disconnected youth with Opportunity Nation's ACTION Community Initiative and have pledged to be an Area Committed To Increasing Opportunity Now!

In five years, many talented youth will enter their 20s, and they must be prepared to lead and strengthen our workforce. While there are communities that have bright spots such as IBM's exceptional P-TECH program, many disconnected youth are not able to capitalize on high-skills technical training provided at the high school level. Post-secondary education or vocational skills training are out of reach for too many in this at-risk group due to inadequate college-readiness skills and the soaring cost of higher education.

County indicators in the Opportunity Index have assisted me and other ACTION Community Leaders to assess our community's needs more effectively. Using the Opportunity Index, we can track the movement of important economic, educational and community factors. We must always consider the impact of poverty when we are creating solutions that will effectively reach all youth in our nation, regardless of where they live.

National service is a promising way to ensure that more young people can access skills training and workforce development as well as receive financial assistance for college or technical school while they provide critical service needs to their community. Here in Ouachita County, we plan to launch a program called Transitional Pathways in September 2013. Young adults will enter a one-year service term in exchange for a monthly living stipend. They will gain academic and workforce skills that will place them on a solid pathway toward completing at least an associate degree or industry-recognized certificate, and receive educational credentials at the end of the service term.

With the support of the ACTION Community Initiative, the Transitional Pathways program will be promoted on March 30, at the SAU Tech Charles O. Ross Center in Camden, AR. It will be part of a community-wide Youth Challenge Pathway Expo, hosted by Ouachita-Calhoun County Literacy Council. The Expo will bring together young adults, ages 16-24, to gather information about college, job/career, technical, transitional, military, and entrepreneurial tracks from professionals in the field, as they plan their future path. Through the Expo, the Literary Council, along with many community collaborators, will be encouraging young adults to engage, or re-engage with various academic and career pathways and begin their individual journey towards personal success.

Ouachita County has received a C grade from the Opportunity Index. To move to a C+, we have to lift 627 adults, or 220 families, out of poverty, decreasing from 19.9 percent to 17.5 percent the population living below the federal poverty line. We also need to increase the percentage of adults completing some form of postsecondary education from 18.9 percent to 25 percent. That means 1,100 people need to complete an associate degree or higher. Our county has a long way to go to move the needle to a C+. We know that individual programs like Transitional Pathways cannot, on their own, achieve all of these urgent goals over the next 10 years. But we are committed and know this plan is a step in the right direction. It can serve as an example for others as they join in the challenge of advancing our youth onto solid pathways and begin building ladders of opportunity for young adults in Ouachita County.

This post is part of the ongoing coverage co-produced by The Huffington Post and Opportunity Nation highlighting solutions to the country's growing opportunity gap. The coverage utilizes the latter's Opportunity Index, the nation's first - and only - tool that measures the impact a geographic place has on each individual's economic mobility. It identifies a comprehensive set of indicators that, when taken together, measure the amount of opportunities available in communities. To see all the coverage so far, click here.

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