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Article California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence By Mike Lee

Moreno Valley puts youth on the path to career success

The city of Moreno Valley won the 2023 Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government. For more information about the award program, visit www.helenputnam.org.

The city of Moreno Valley has created something remarkable: a low-cost program that boosts GPAs and wages. Working with Moreno Valley College, the city established an initiative that helps young people complete their education, overcome the “earn vs. learn” dilemma, and enter the local workforce — for just $150,000 and staff time each year.

“This program allowed me to enlist additional volunteer work on my resume, which absolutely wins points for a prospective job to hire me in the future,” said Immanuel Morris, one of the program’s current participants. “I’ve also been absolutely motivated to continue to push for good grades and do my best in my educational journey.”

The “earn vs. learn” dilemma

Like many cities across California, Moreno Valley grapples with a low college completion rate. Only one in four residents hold a college degree. Past practices — some obvious and others less so — based on race, gender, age, language, and family income once hindered the city’s youth from accessing and graduating from college. The effects of those policies still linger.  

Today, many non-college graduates come from communities of color and non-English speaking households, with roughly 23% of adults lacking a high school diploma. The “earn vs. learn” dilemma forces many students to drop out of school to meet their basic needs, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and limiting their career prospects.

“These students are driven by the strong desire to complete their education, and they want to become the first in their families to receive a college degree,” said Moreno Valley Mayor Ulises Cabrera. “A huge part of that is making it through the day. We want to empower these students and give them the security and strong foundation they need to create better futures for themselves and their families.”

Another barrier that blocks Moreno Valley youth from climbing out of poverty is the lack of a clear career focus or uncertainty about future employment prospects. Without a defined career path, many students struggle to find jobs relevant to their studies. Many resort to taking lower-wage jobs or relocating away from their support networks to make ends meet.

Obtaining early work experience and gaining vital soft skills are critical components of preparing youth for the transition to adulthood and the workforce. The demand for early exposure to jobs and training is only increasing: By 2025, most California jobs will require some post-secondary education or specialized training.

A group of high schoolers meeting with potential employeers at a career fair.

Breaking barriers

The city and Moreno Valley College developed five core programs that provide financial assistance and support, including monthly check-ins and work experience opportunities.

College Promise serves as a bridge for high school students transitioning to college life by offering funding for initial expenses, such as tuition, fees, and textbooks. The program also provides access to counselors and student support services for at-risk students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.

A similar program, MoVaLEARNS, provides $250 per month for one school year — no strings attached — to tackle the “earn vs. learn” dilemma. The program gives preference to full-time career and technical education track and associate degree track students in their second year or higher, mitigating the risk of dropout due to financial constraints.

On the opportunity side, the city holds a virtual career day academy for high school and college students. Through interactive sessions, students gain insights into various career opportunities and pathways, including those within local government, education, and the city’s major employers. At the annual Apprenticeship Expo, high school students can meet local employers, schools, and trades, encouraging them to explore apprenticeship opportunities.

The city also employs three student fellows from Moreno Valley College as part of the #CaliforniansForAll College Corps program. These fellows receive an annual stipend of $10,000 and focus their work on climate action and K-12 education support.

Financial aid and network opportunities alone are not always enough. The collaborative also offers supportive services and career guidance to address students’ diverse needs. Human-centered design principles and in-depth interviews informed the development of support systems that help students navigate resources and services on campus and in the community. Senior-level city staff, supported by additional city and college personnel, oversee the management and coordination of these programs, ensuring ongoing mentorship, career guidance, and individualized support for enrolled students.

A high school student learns how to lay bricks, as a other students and a teacher.

Building a brighter future

These programs have had a significant impact on the lives of Moreno Valley’s youth. Students have reported increased focus on their education, reduced stress levels, and decreased work hours, which allows them to prioritize their studies.

Approximately 93% of program participants credited the initiatives with helping them complete their education more quickly, while nearly two-thirds experienced an improvement in their GPA. Post-program success is also evident, with 76% of students securing jobs closely aligned with their studies, 81% working full-time, and close to two-thirds seeing positive changes in their hourly wages.

“Through this program, I was able to meet beautiful people in the city where I live,” Genesse Moss-Terry said. “The resources provided helped me accomplish my educational goals to become a social worker.”

However, Moreno Valley’s journey is far from over. Continuous efforts are necessary to provide even greater opportunities for the city’s youth. By envisioning a future that accelerates opportunities for all, the collaborative initiative strives to empower youth, break generational cycles of poverty, and attract higher-wage jobs to the city. Together, Moreno Valley is building a village of support to shape a brighter future for its residents.

Mike Lee is the city manager for the city of Moreno Valley. He can be reached at cmoffice@moval.org or (951) 413-3020. Watch this video for an overview of the project.