THE BLOG
06/05/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

If They Believe, Even the Most Disadvantaged Children Can Achieve

Much has been written about the cycle of poverty and under-achievement in urban schools. But too few stories have appeared about the most at-risk students who have risen to the occasion to graduate, achieve and contribute to their schools, communities and families. This is one of those stories.

Six years ago, educators from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, approached Project Love with a new challenge. Project Love is a character and values education and training organization that has built a reputation for training entire middle and high school grade levels to take responsibility for building school cultures of kindness, caring and respect. The challenge: to craft a training program that would inspire and empower the most at-risk girls in the school district to succeed. With seed funding from the Alcoa Foundation, Project Love agreed.

You might ask, Why girls? The answer is that the teachers have witnessed the largest increase in violence among the girls, particularly African-American girls. Along
with the increased violence were increases in other risk behaviors: teen pregnancy, gang involvement, decreased self-esteem, and dropping out of high school.

One outstanding girl, Imane Blaine, summed up her struggles, distractions and frustrations in a rap poem, "Pressure."

I saw a lot at the age of 16.

People dien, my sister cryin' cause she pregnant

At only 15.

Another day, another dollar

My brother always on the grind

And Neva get to see my mama

Cause she's working all the time.

And all that pressure...falls...on me.

The Project Love program that ensued was called Believe to Achieve. Based on the organization's experience at the time with almost 40,000 teens and its research base in cognitive psychology, we reasoned that if these girls believed in themselves and the "dream" of a future, they would achieve. After all, contrary to popular beliefs about poverty, who doesn't want to be successful if they're shown the way?

They did not let us -- or themselves -- down. They believed and did achieve.

Last year, after four years in the program -- which was one day a week, guided by a skilled facilitator and role model who took them through a structured curriculum called "Winning at the Game of Life" -- 81% completed all their course requirements through the 12th grade, and 72% got their diplomas (the overall school graduation rate was 47% when the program started.) Two out of 72 girls got pregnant, delivered babies and, still, returned to graduate. Six of the top 10 academic performers at Collinwood High School, the prototype school, were girls who participated in the program.

Just a few days ago, this year's cohort walked across the stage. Eighty-four percent of the girls graduated, as compared with the 56 percent overall graduation rate in the Cleveland School District as a whole. Five out of the top 10 academic performers were Believe to Achieve girls. Not one girl got pregnant during the four years of the program, through the 12th grade.

We live in a measurement society, but the subjective data beneath these statistics is just as impressive -- and important - as it goes directly to character and values. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized that, we must judge our children based, "Not on the color of their skin, but the content of their character," evaluating educational outcomes must involve social-emotional skills and character. Otherwise, we're raising confident and competent children who can potentially spark financial collapse, disregard and disrespect in society and the workplace.

Leaders who have met the Believe to Achieve girls have noticed the depth of their character, which is an intentional outcome of the program. For the four years of Believe to Achieve, they're focusing on who they are, what their life purpose is, how they can dream and how they can win at life -- with love and justice, integrity, belief and courage, integrated with their real-life experiences.

Like you, I too get mixed up inside

I'd have to bend my knees to talk to my G.O.D.

GOD! ALL THIS PRESSURE FALLS ON ME!

...But that's when I turn into Hercules...

Much of education-talk these days is focused on STEM, small schools and competition. Although that is appropriate, we must not lose sight that the success these girls have achieved -- and what ultimately separates good and bad character -- is based on core belief, identity and values.

In the 1930's, journalist Napoleon Hill wrote a book about how the most successful people in America achieved their dreams. "Think and Grow Rich," one of the most popular books of all time, revealed that, despite the odds against success, the uber-succeeders achieved their dreams because they believed in the destiny of their purpose and plans.

Almost one hundred years later, the formula is still pretty simple. Believe to Achieve.

I'm above it all; I'm just tryna get mines.

And when I do break the bad habit

And graduate from school

Hopefully, the next generation

Will walk in my shoes

I just hope they're as strong

It'll pay off soon

To rise,

When all that pressure...falls...on YOU.

- Imane Blaine (Believe to Achieve Class of 2012)

Stuart Muszynski is the President and CEO of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation. Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., Pastor Emeritus, of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, national civil rights leaders and former chairman of Morehouse College, is the founding co-chair of Believe to Achieve.