In the next few weeks, millions of high school students will celebrate more than a decade of hard work in graduation ceremonies across the country. And more than a million more will not.
In the next decade, more than 12 million students are projected to drop out of high school. Those young people will be eight times more likely to be in jail, and the projected financial impact to the nation is $3 trillion. Across the United States, students are failing their classes, and schools are failing their students.
We have the ability and responsibility to do better. Solving the high school dropout crisis will require collaboration across nonprofits, the private sector and government, but it also mandates that we believe that every student can succeed.
As an AmeriCorps volunteer through City Year, I serve at John Liechty Middle School in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, providing in-class academic support to 34 sixth-grade students. If the prevailing research is accurate, nine of those 12-year-olds are already on track to drop out of high school.
A study led by Dr. Robert Balfanz through Johns Hopkins University found that by the sixth grade, students who show any of three "early-warning indicators" -- low attendance, behavior problems or course failure in math or English -- have only a 20 percent chance of graduating.
That research led to the creation of Diplomas Now, a collaborative that brings together City Year, Talent Development and Communities in Schools, offering comprehensive whole-school reform through academic support, social services and ongoing training. We seek to deliver "the right interventions to the right students at the right time."
My 16 teammates and I, like other City Year corps members across the country, arrive at school before the first bell for morning tutoring - and students actually wake up an hour earlier to meet us in the library. During the day, I attend math and English classes with my 34 students, offering whole class support, as well as one-on-one and small-group tutoring. Our after-school program reaches out to all John Liechty students, with homework help and service-learning lessons.
This week, with the support of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, City Year hosted "In School & On Track," a national leadership summit focused on analyzing and expanding the impact of Diplomas Now.
On Tuesday, City Year Co-founder and President Michael Brown announced the release of data showing significant reductions in early-warning indicators at the Diplomas Now sites in Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Antonio, Chicago and Philadelphia.
The mid-year data for John Liechty shows 50 percent of students who were off-track have improved attendance, 55 percent who were failing English are now passing, and 50 percent have raised a failing grade in math.
Throughout the summit, discussion centered on how to grow Diplomas Now to scale, to reach 50 percent of the students most at risk of dropping out. Panels and dialogues focused on smart investments in service organizations and the role of entertainers in mobilizing volunteers.
Interspersed with the hard data and difficult discussions were corps members' testimonials, sharing success stories about students whom others had given up on - and many who had given up on themselves.
I was reassured to know that young people are standing up to fulfill the promise of educational equality, and I was reminded of my own struggles and successes in the classroom. I felt the power of relentless idealism and hard work when I stood in a circle with more than 50 corps members from City Year's 20 national sites.
Our work is difficult. But beyond academic support, City Year's diverse corps of 17- to 24-year-olds provides near-peer role models and exemplifies a culture that values difference and teamwork. That teamwork extends beyond our corps, to the teachers, researchers and trained social workers who help students with needs beyond our skills, to the countless other organizations working to end the dropout crisis.
Education reform is a complex and challenging issue, but national service and synchronized collaboration can be part of the solution.
The summit attendees are a testament to the fact that service allows every individual to leverage personal strengths, like the corps members who infuse schools with positive energy or the entertainers who leverage their social capital to inspire others.
If we believe that every student deserves to earn a diploma, we can work together to push our students and the United States back on track and resolve the high school dropout crisis.
The word "crisis," as its most often used, describes an unstable situation likely to have a highly unfavorable outcome. Its primary definition, however, is more neutral; the Greek word for decision, krisis, refers to a turning point - for better or worse.
We must make this moment a turning point for positive change. I am asking for your help to make sure that in six years, all 34 of my students will walk across a stage to receive a diploma.
Join me, my fellow corps members, the educators who allow us into classrooms, and the foundations and donors who make our service possible.
Join us in reestablishing a nation of graduates.
Audrey Kuo, 24, is from Saratoga, CA. She is a first-year corps member at John Liechty Middle School.
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