02/17/2012 01:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

Stay Late and Graduate?

Nearly one in two students in the Los Angeles Unified School District drops out of high school. It is a sad fact that many students fall off the educational ladder between their freshmen and junior years leaving them ill-prepared for life. Each of us has reason to be alarmed. For with so many of our young people dropping out comes a rise in crime, teenage pregnancy and other risky activities that place a burden on society. The perpetual challenge we are all facing now more than ever, is how can we keep students in school?

The task is even more daunting given the severe budget cuts that are business as usual in today's public schools. I am not breaking news here by saying our schools are in crisis. The state is cutting education budgets to the bone here in Los Angeles. The city and the school district are often at odds. Teachers face the threat of layoffs. And our kids pay the price. It is said that the Chinese symbol for crisis and opportunity are one and the same. We who work in education face that reality day in and day out.

In these lean and mean times, the school day has been stripped down to the basics of academics. In truth, not all students are academically inclined as evident by the high dropout rate in schools nationwide. If indeed "no child left behind" is to become a reality, what can be done?

The Los Angeles Unified School District is rising to meet that challenge through its innovative Beyond the Bell Branch under the leadership of its Executive Director, Alvaro Cortes. Four years ago, EduCare Foundation was approached by Alvaro to partner with two other community-based organizations, !Mpact People and arc (formerly Champions), to launch the Take Action Leadership Campaign. Under Alvaro's direction, we were tasked to co-create a program that embodies the philosophy, "Stay Late and Graduate." And the fantastic news is that is working.

Here's how Take Action works. Working with the students, we create a wide range of before- and after-school programs that appeal to them. We do this by listening to the students and making sure their opinions and interests count. In a commitment to their community, we encourage them to volunteer their time and energy to projects of their choosing.

  • Many of the students are teaching their own after-school clubs and activities. Performing arts, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and public service are at the core.
  • As a result, they are collecting canned goods for the hungry, raising money for breast cancer and taking a stand against bullying, among the many issues that speak to them.
  • Students who are drawn to the arts participate in talent shows in their schools, the winners who advance to a citywide culmination event at Paramount Studios.
  • And some inner city students who don't even own home computers are excelling in solving cyber security problems as part of the national CyberPatriot program sponsored by the Air Force Association.

By giving students before- and after-school programs that they have a hand in creating, they are staying in school and improving their grades. What started four years ago in six schools has grown to 39 schools in 2012. And the best news of all it is it is funded by anti-smoking monies, foundations and many other sources that do not deplete school budgets. These before- and after-school programs are extremely cost-effective when compared with the monies spent in service to the more expansive student population during the regular school day. But the truth is there are many more schools and funding is always a challenge.

After teaching in the '70s and '80s in LAUSD middle schools, I became involved with progressive education at Insight, an organization committed to creating transformational leaders through heart-based learning. By encouraging people to live in their hearts and their heads, Insight has been building bridges between diverse communities finding common ground between Israel's Jewish and Arab communities, parents and children, and teachers and students across the United States and around the world.

We founded the EduCare Foundation as a direct result of Insight's groundbreaking work and we are seeing results in the many schools we work with here and abroad. I think of the trip to Tanzania last summer where through a collaboration between EduCare Foundation and Insight University, leadership students from the U.S. served at a middle school and orphanage. Seeing the smiles on the beautiful faces of both our students and the children they served as they discovered their essential nature though our time-tested ACE (Achievement and Commitment to Excellence) Program, gives me hope for the future.

If you're concerned about our children's future, here's how you can help. Reach out to principals, teachers and school districts to let them know you value after school programs. If you live in Los Angeles, please attend "An Evening with Arianna Huffington" LIVE at UCLA's Royce Hall on March 17 presented by Insight University. Proceeds from the event will provide scholastic assistance so students can experience this life-changing work. I will have the honor of presenting Insight University's first-ever Innovations in Education Award to Beyond the Bell's Take Action Leadership Campaign under the inspired leadership of Alvaro Cortes.

Arianna is extremely knowledgeable about Insight's work and we expect she'll speak her mind about the state of education in 2012 and beyond. At the event, you will have the opportunity to voice your concerns about education for Arianna to address. Be a part of inspiring hope and dialogue in support of our young people's educational success.

If you want more information on "An Evening with Arianna" please get in touch.
You can learn more about Beyond the Bell-LAUSD's "Take Action Campaign" here and about EduCare Foundation here.