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A Civic Marshall Plan for a Grad Nation: A Role for Volunteers?

Having a sense of purpose is also a key ingredient for student success. If students can connect what they are learning to a positive future for themselves they are far more likely to do what it takes to succeed in school.
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It's a scandal that in America today so many young people leave high school never to return and that about half of these kids are concentrated in a small fraction of public high schools. So I was thrilled to see that a report just released by America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center has that rare piece of good news: America is making progress toward reducing the dropout rate.

It turns out, thanks to a wide range of reform efforts, the number of high schools where 40 percent or more of the students fail to graduate fell significantly from 2002 to 2008. But not far enough. That's where the report's "Civic Marshall Plan" comes in, offering actions that could get us the rest of the way.

Although most of the plan action steps target professional educators, administrators, and policymakers, the "Civic Marshall Plan" includes a role for national service, and calls for full funding of the Education Corps authorized in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. For example, City Year figures prominently in the plan's call for "Early Warning and Intervention Systems," based on its strong results using corpsmembers, who are AmeriCorps members, to provide supports to off-track students in middle- and high-schools. [Check out CBS news' November 30 segment if you want to understand how they do it.] YouthBuild, which also receives AmeriCorps funding along with Department of Labor and other public and private support, is identified as a model for "Dropout Recovery" based on its success "re-enrolling dropouts and allowing them to earn a high school diploma or GED while gaining work and community service experience." The report also highlights nonprofit organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters, which relies heavily on volunteers.

Ironically, America's Promise, the organization founded by Colin Powell in response to the 1997 Summit for America's Future (often referred to as the "Volunteer Summit") has issued a report calling for a "concerted effort by leaders and citizens at all levels" in which the word "volunteer" does not appear. However, the Civic Marshall Plan does include strategies that are human-capital intensive and would be greatly enhanced by volunteer support.

For example, the Plan calls for starting with early reading, as dropping out is a process that begins long before a student enters high school; long-term course failure is strongly tied to students not being able to read proficiently by 4th grade. Programs like Jumpstart and Reach Out and Read engage volunteers to read to preschool children, improving their school readiness, while Experience Corps places adults 55 and older in K-3 schools where they increase reading proficiency and improve student behavior. The Clinton Administration's America Reads challenge, and the many state programs that followed, demonstrate the impact that large scale mobilization of volunteers against the goal of third grade literacy could have.

Volunteers can play an important role in another Plan component -- developing parent engagement strategies -- by helping with outreach, translation, organizing functions, and other labor intensive roles.

"Enhancing adult supports inside and outside the classroom," another plan component, is a longstanding role played by volunteers. The report mentions the important role that mentoring played in turning around Richmond High School in Indianapolis. The Graduation Coaches initiative launched by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in his city's service plan would similar engage volunteers -- on a far larger scale -- to help young people in their lives make it to the finish line, utilizing supports offered online and through the city's "PhillyGoes2College" program.

My only other issue with what is otherwise a seminal, well-conceived, and badly needed plan, it is that it is largely lacking a well-defined role for students themselves. In fact, students help to create the culture of a school -- if they define achievement as uncool, it can have a widespread impact. That's why College Summit makes its volunteer "peer leaders" a key ingredient of its program to increase the college-going rate of schools. I'm sure Richmond High School targets high school seniors to be mentors for the same reason.

Having a sense of purpose is also a key ingredient for student success. If students can connect what they are learning to a positive future for themselves they are far more likely to do what it takes to succeed in school. Service-learning in which students apply what they learn to projects that help others is a proven way to instill that sense of purpose and it ought to be part of the plan.

All in all, this is a report that ought to be read by every American who cares about breaking the cycle of poverty -- or making America competitive in the future. And all of us can help - even if we're not teachers, principals, or policymakers.

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