12/13/2011 11:00 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

My 'brilliant' idea

Some years ago, when I still believed that I was a pretty clever fellow, I dreamed up a campaign to persuade young people to stay in school. What inspired this brilliant idea was daily sightings of adults standing at intersections wearing signboards advertising one thing or another. This was, to my eye, the ultimate low-skill job because it required absolutely no mental effort and hardly any physical work. I hypothesized that the workers must have dropped out of school.

So I thought about taking photographs of the sign-wearers, blurring their faces, and then creating posters with a slogan something like "It's your choice. Stay in School or ..." with an arrow pointing to the poor guy wearing the sign.

Great message to youth, I figured, because no one could aspire to that work, and the threat of being able to get only that sort of job would be a powerful motivator.

Luckily, I did not do anything impulsive about my brilliant idea. Instead, when I replayed those images in my mind, it dawned on me that almost all of the sign-wearers were brown-skinned men and women. They might have been new arrivals to northern California and working at the one of the few jobs available. Or, a more frightening thought, they might have been dropouts from a California high school or middle school.

Sure enough, the Hispanic dropout rate turns out to be significantly higher than that of any other group. In 2010 the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, released the report "Hispanics, High School Dropouts and the GED." It found that 41% of Hispanic adults age 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma, compared with 23% of black adults and 14% of white adults.

Their reasons for dropping out were complex, as likely to involve school failure as economic imperatives, lack of family support or expectations, and language barriers (meaning teachers, administrators and support staff who did not speak or understand Spanish).

Suddenly my notion of a 'stay in school' campaign seemed to be a classic case of oversimplification and 'blaming the victim.'

Forget my not-so-brilliant idea. What we need is not a(nother) simple-minded 'Stay in School' campaign aimed at the kids but a more sophisticated campaign, aimed at both youth and adults. Call it 'Succeed in School.' And it shouldn't be all about how much more money you earn if you get a high school diploma, but instead about ways to succeed and ways to help others succeed. Small steps, or what B.J. Fogg of Stanford calls "Tiny Habits." Or as another thoughtful leader, Louis V. Gerstner, is wont to say, "No more forecasting rain; it's time to build arks."

What small steps and tiny habits are the building blocks of success? I have written about this in The Influence of Teachers, and deeper thinkers like Larry Rosenstock, Don Shalvey, Amy Valens, and Renee Moore have turned words into deeds, so I won't go into this more deeply here but will ask you for your suggestions. What works to make kids be -- and feel -- successful?

I have one suggestion, however: help them make videos where community members recite poetry or prose. I wrote about this here, and now I have an example to show you:

In my last post (linked above), I wrote about how projects like this work on several levels. They teach real-world skills like production and cooperation; they give kids the satisfaction of seeing a project through from start to finish and sharing their work with a larger audience; and they demonstrate to the 80% of households without school-age children that great things are happening in our schools.

Small steps, tiny habits.

"Success is a Team Sport" is my nomination for the bumper sticker.

Your thoughts?