Project WOW participant Nick R. works on an electrical circuit as part of the program’s training in property maintenance and repair.
Since its inception in 2005, JEVS Project WOW (World of Work) has improved the lives of over 700 young Philadelphians who did not complete high school, helping them obtain their diplomas and receive skills training to pursue a career or enter college.
The program is free of charge and is open to city residents ages 18-24. Along with a high school diploma, the goal of the 21 week program is placement for each student, whether it be employment, further education, or vocational training.
To build on its legacy of successful outcomes, Project WOW has been retooled for 2021. “We have been successful all this time, now we want to be better than successful,” said program manager Sylvia Ocasio. “We want to be outstanding.”
Ocasio, who has been with the program since the beginning, said that although the programming of each cohort is updated and improved based on the experience and outcomes of the previous class, this restructuring was partially the result of events outside of the classroom.
“I think of it as the positive side of COVID,” said Ocasio. “It forced us to look to see how we could function outside of the school, so we obtained an education expert, and learned ways to improve in the academic area. But we also looked to improve our support services as well as career readiness.”
The program, which had gone virtual in 2020, is now back in person four days a week at JEVS’s education center, Orleans Technical College, in addition to a fifth day of online instruction.
“They build a house, they build friendships, they build their lives.”
All students are enrolled in the Penn Foster high school diploma program, and their instructor keeps track of their daily academic process. Ocasio reports that though the current cohort is only halfway through the program, already five of the students have received their high school diploma, and all of the students have received OSHA certifications and Hilti gun certifications. “This is a first in the history of Project WOW. And this is during a pandemic! We are very happy with that,” she said, adding that 92% of the cohort is on track to achieve a high school diploma, compared to past rates of 82-85%.
Specific improvements to the program include updated curriculum and text books, post-secondary counseling and enrollment assistance, and the addition of digital literacy instruction. A new classroom has been added with computers and individualized workstations. The program has also hired new instructors as well as a Youth Job Developer and Career Pathways Manager.
Interwoven with academic instruction are workshops on Property Maintenance and Repair (PMR), where the students receive hands-on training in the building trades, taught by a master carpenter with 30 years experience.
“They build a house, they build friendships, they build their lives,” said Ocasio, referring to the process whereby each cohort builds a structure in the classroom. They start with a safety course, then perform demolition work on the last cohort’s house, then work together to plan and build a new structure.
Along with academic instruction and PMR workshops, the final piece of the puzzle is career readiness, with new procedures in place to facilitate comprehensive participant assessment, career aptitude testing, and profiling for optimum job placement.
“The students are very excited about this part of the program,” said Ocasio. “They feel like there is a plan for their future, that there will be opportunities for them.”
Ocasio believes the reason for the enthusiasm is that the program offers each participant a customized approach. “If a student feels a career in the building trades is not for them, we will work with them to find out what is,” she said, noting that the students are learning useful life skills regardless of where they go from here. In addition, the program has a referral process for students who might be a better fit for other JEVS programs like E3, STRIVE, or CareerLink.
No matter their course after Project WOW, Ocasio believes the students have been set on a path to success, a belief that is confirmed by the countless former students who keep in touch with her. “They call to update me on their success stories. They tell me about their career in construction fields, that they’re getting married, or in college. I heard from one who is now a nurse, another who is a fireman. They all say Project WOW helped make it possible.”
Taking Project WOW from successful to outstanding is clearly a labor of love for Ocasio. “These kids couldn’t finish high school, they came here, now they have these life sustaining careers,” she said. “It’s amazing.”