Navigating an ‘Alternative Roadmap’

Christian Carmody meets with students in the Pomona, Calif. school district in an Alternative Roadmap session.
Christian Carmody
Carmody (center with sports coat) with students of Mendez High School in Los Angeles
Elliot Zettas, co-founder, left, and Christian Carmody, pitching Alternative Roadmap in Boston Credits: Photos courtesy of Christian Carmody

Christian Carmody saw a problem with the country’s education system that was flying under the radar and decided to try and fix it.

Carmody, 25, a 2011 Mahopac High grad, noticed that the unemployment rate for those without a college was much higher than those who had one. But he also discovered that not everyone was cut out—either academically or financially—to attend college. He wanted to find a way to bridge the gap and empower underserved youth and help them create their own path to success.

The result was the creation of a nonprofit call the Alternative Roadmap that uses a life-coaching curriculum to fill a void in which many young adults find themselves.

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The Alternative Roadmap was born in 2016 in a Denver coffeehouse—the brainchild of Carmody and co-founder Elliot Zettas. Together, they wrote a book and curriculum utilizing a life-coaching approach that helps spark self-awareness in this young demographic and introduces alternatives to college.

The program has now completed successful pilot programs with the Pomona Unified School District in Los Angeles, as well as with the nonprofit organization, Colorado Homeless Families in Denver and Carmody is spending the summer pitching the concept to more organizations and school districts here on the East Coast.

The seed for the idea of the Alternative Roadmap was planted several years ago when Carmody first graduated from the University of Vermont with a math degree—something he wasn’t sure he knew what he’d do with.

“At the University of Vermont, you had to choose your major right away; you had to declare,” he said. “It was difficult for me to figure that out because I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. I chose math because it was my best subject in high school and I thought it would look good on paper to have a math degree. I felt it would hold some sort of weight. I thought it would increase my critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills.”

Carmody also had an interest in business but didn’t want to take any classes on the subject. He wanted real-life experience.

“I wanted to experience it on my own without being taught through a textbook,” he said.

After graduating, he landed an internship with MassChallenge, a Boston-based organization known as a startup accelerator. It helps a new business grow by providing it with support—marketing, branding, mentoring, and investment. It’s a competition as well: 128 businesses participate and the top 10 finishers receive funding.

“I worked as a business development intern there and the two things I took away is that I enjoy building relationships and partnerships and networking and that the startups were inspiring to me. Everyone was essentially taking the road less travel. It really kicked in my entrepreneurial side.”

After the internship, Carmody returned to Mahopac where he got a job waiting tables and began to contemplate his future.

‘I knew I wanted a change and really wanted to find a place to live before diving into what I wanted to,” he said. “I saved money to travel across the country and I landed in Denver.”

He got a job working for an accounting software company called Xero, which is where he discovered he wanted to pursue some type of career in education where he could employ his problem-solving and critical-thinking skills from his math degree and his entrepreneurial instincts from his internship.

“I wanted something in education but I didn’t necessarily want to be a teacher,” he said. “I was trying to think of ways to contribute to the education system. It was then  I noticed a trend in college applications and how the return on investment from college wasn't what it should be based on the amount of money students were spending. I was curious to see stats on those who were not going to college and what they were facing. I was starting to see a real problem.

“There are opportunities out there that don’t require a college degree and I wondered why these kids in low-income areas who didn’t go to college weren’t pursuing these other opportunities,” he added. “What were they doing? How can an individual that comes from an environment that lacks resources break the cycle and not end up in poverty? How do you get those coming out of homelessness or out of prison back on their feet without government support so they are completely self-sufficient and can maintain it?”

Carmody discovered there are programs that try to help, but most are very college-focused or focused on counseling.

“I was trying to find something that was engaging, motivating and could create self-sufficiency,” he said.

It was at this time he met Elliot Zettas, a Xero co-worker who was writing a book for high school students who might want to eschew a college degree and instead focus on a career in sales.

“His brothers both pursued sales and have successful careers,” he said. “He thought it was important that students be made aware of it and learn how to be successful at it. He shared his concerns with me and I wondered how many were aware of entrepreneurship, which doesn’t require college.”

The two began brainstorming other careers with promising futures that didn’t require a degree such as trade jobs and certification jobs.

“We realized there weren’t many programs in high school that were teaching students self-awareness, confidence and motivating them for the future other than an occasional assembly speakers,” Carmody said. “We thought we could create a curriculum the focuses on [the students] and their futures. We spoke with some school counselors and many told us that students need more than just counseling.”

Zettas had an interest in life coaching where you ask a person thought-provoking questions to help them create ownership of their lives. It’s a technique proven successful with adults, but the two partners wondered if it could work with students and young adults.

“That’s now at the root of our new program; it focuses on Millennials and Generation Z,” he said, “It has a reliability factor and the initial trust because it is written for the youth by the youth and it has all stuff that can be related to like pop culture and social media references.”

Once the boys had the elements for the program loosely in place they sought a group on which to try it out. That was what led to that aforementioned first meeting in the Denver coffeehouse. Zettas’ younger brother knew some young men who had moved to the U.S. from Somalia and were unsure what to do with themselves after high school graduation.

“We invited two of them to meet with us to chat,” Carmody said. “That first conversation was literally the first chapter of our book. We wondered how it would work in person. But after that meeting, it took off from there. They asked if we could meet again and they brought a friend and then they brought more friends and then it turned out to be two white guys with 20 Somalians.

“It was great,” he continued. “Some decided college was what they wanted to do, but we had others who said they had other ideas; things like starting a podcast or a t-shirt brand that focused Muslim peace. They were all engaged in what they wanted to do. They were starting to think. Initially, they were completely lost.”

Through some serendipitous connections with the Pomona School District in Southern California, they were presented with an opportunity to pitched the Alternative Roadmap to administrators there.

“They were having bad attendance problems,” Carmody said. “We emailed the superintendent a copy of the book and he called us a few days later and asked if we would pilot the program for the upcoming school year. It was pretty insane. He wanted us there in three weeks, so we quit our jobs in Denver and moved to L.A. We worked with two alt high schools in the Pomona School District—about 200 students—and we saw an increase in attendance rates and an increase in confidence levels, which was based on surveys they took.”

The two signed a contract with Pomona to repeat the program next year and Zettas remains in California to prepare for it.

“What Alternative Roadmap has done for SEEO (School of Extended Education Options) is nothing short of amazing,” said
Tom Sweeney, principal at SEEO of Pomona Unified School District. “Kids that have come to our school have found themselves sometimes hopeless, needing direction and life coaching to help see their talents, gifts, and strengths. A kid who was once hopeless can now see a future.”

Carmody, meanwhile, has returned to the East Coast, where he looks to spread Alternative Roadmaps to the Greater New York City and Boston areas. Coincidentally, he were able to get into an entrepreneur acceleration program much like MassChallenge—the one he was a part of when he first graduated college—called E for All. He’s spending the summer on Cape Cod working with the program while trying to build partnerships with other organizations and school districts.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” he said.

Carmody said his long-term goals include emerging Alternative Roadmaps as a national nonprofit.

“We want to be a course offering in all high schools; something that can be trusted and relied on for success and quality,” he said. “This is the vision I have been looking for. I remember sitting at my kitchen table and talking to my parents saying that I know I want control over what I do and want to start my own thing, I just didn’t know what it was.”

Carmody said he approached the Mahopac School District about a month ago about Alternative Roadmaps and talked to some of his old teachers.

“They were very interested and want to get me into a meeting with the superintendents,” he said. “There is a lot of red tape in schools, unfortunately, but hopefully we can provide enough stats that will open some eyes and open some doors.”

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