Battling The Dropout Epidemic

I found out that I learned differently, but back then I assumed I was dumb, and the self-image stuck with me.
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My colleagues and I at Communities In Schools have spent the past 30 years creating an antidote to our nation's dropout epidemic. It is an epidemic, and a bad one: In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued its report "The Silent Epidemic," documenting just how bleak the situation is. Each year, almost one third of all public high school students -- and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans -- fail to graduate with their class.

America's three and a half million dropouts ages 16 to 25 are truly have-nots: They do not have a high school diploma, and as a result they have little hope for a decent future. They are far more likely than their peers to be unemployed, live in poverty, experience chronic poor health, depend upon social services, and go to jail. Half of all prison inmates are high school dropouts. In fact, on any given day, more young male dropouts are in prison than at a job.

The dropout crisis is not just an education issue -- but our education system is the arena where the battle against the dropout epidemic will be won or lost.

The truth is, my colleagues and I got into education because the kids needed it, not because we had any calling to be teachers or school administrators. As "streetworkers" in New York City in the 1960s, we worked with young people who had dropped out of school and were now homeless, on drugs, without a future. We quickly discovered that programs don't change kids -- relationships do. By forging strong personal relationships with youth, and showing them we valued them and cared about them, we were able to help turn around many young lives.

But getting a kid off the streets was only the beginning. What were they supposed to do next, with an 8th grade education at 18 years old? Like it or not, we were going to have to get involved in the "education" business.

So, beginning in 1965, we started a series of storefront schools in Harlem and the Lower East Side that we called Street Academies. The Street Academies helped thousands of dropouts earn their diplomas or GEDs, and received funding from 16 major corporations. Yet we saw two things with increasing clarity: One was that dropouts had already been scarred by the failures of the system; their road back was tough. The other was that, for all our accomplishments, more and more kids kept quitting school. Our storefront schools couldn't begin to handle the flood of young people who needed a second chance.

So the answer was obvious, though incredibly difficult to implement: We had to find a way to move our operation inside the public schools, and reach potential dropouts before they quit.

Our Street Academy movement had taken root in several other cities besides New York, and we decided to focus on Atlanta as the home for this new concept. We worked out a model that the superintendent could support, and began bringing needed human and social services into an Atlanta elementary school and high school.

Our work was based on a simple insight: Every child needs and deserves the same bedrock support that your children need. Before kids can focus on academic success, they have to have what we called the Five Basics:

* A personal, one-on-one relationship with a caring adult
* A safe place to learn and grow
* A healthy start and a healthy future
* A marketable skill to use upon graduation
* A chance to give back to peers and community

Educators, no matter how dedicated, already have too much to do -- they can't be social workers, big brothers and sisters, career counselors and hall monitors, all at the same time. It's up to the community to provide the safety net of nonacademic services that will give students these Five Basics.

Becoming a partner of the public education system was a challenge on so many levels, including the personal. I had to overcome some deep-seated feelings of inferiority about my own education. I never did well in school, and at one point my parents took me out of high school because, according to the principal, I "couldn't handle the work." Many years later, I found out that I learned differently, but back then I assumed I was dumb, and the self-image stuck with me.

But if you're motivated by loving kids, you can overcome any obstacle -- not only theirs, but your own. It's been written that "You gain your life by giving it away," and over the years I've found this to be true. As anyone will tell you who's mentored a young person, adults get more out of the relationship than they could ever put in.

The Communities In Schools strategies are now in place in more than 3,400 schools in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Each year, we reach over a million kids and their families with needed social services -- but the battle against the dropout epidemic is only beginning. If you care about kids -- and your nation's future - then I ask three things of you: your awareness, your advocacy, and your action. Stay attuned to the problem, speak up, and help your public schools create a community-based model that will serve all its children.

The dropout epidemic is a justice issue, perhaps the most crucial one we face in the U.S. As our longtime friend Jimmy Carter wrote recently, "[Poor and minority youth] are crying out for social justice, not more discrimination. Yet poor people bear the burden of our failure to create an equitable public education system." If we allow the dropout crisis to continue, it will lead to both economic and moral bankruptcy in this country.

That's a future we can't afford.

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