09/12/2012 04:02 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

The Case for Building Mentor Capital

Schools across the country have geared up and welcomed students for another engaging year in the classroom. The start of a new school year is always an exciting time filled with a sense of opportunity. As the leaves turn, students, teachers and parents get a fresh start.

But they aren't the only ones who should see "back to school" as a time of new possibilities. The season is the perfect time of year to become a reader, tutor or mentor. Nearly 6,000 American students drop out every day. But, students who participate in mentor relationships miss 50 percent fewer school days, are less likely to use drugs and more likely to complete their educations. With only 20 percent of a student's time spent in school, out-of-school time activities serve as an integral part of a child's success.

Education is a vital building block for a bright future, and to provide quality education requires more than just high quality educators. We know that how well a student performs in school can serve as an indicator for the type of job, salary and overall quality of life a person experiences in his or her lifetime.

What and how a child learns and develops goes beyond the four walls of the classroom. Out-of-school-time activities provide tremendous benefits to students - one, of course, is the opportunity to develop a positive and healthy relationship with an adult. But for this to happen, we need great mentors.

As a child, I benefited from a mentor, and I truly believe that mentors play a crucial role in the lives of our youth. I would not be where I am today, would not have pursued a degree in social work and would not have joined United Way if it wasn't for my mentor. Mentors are more than just positive role models outside the classroom -- they are individuals who motivate, inspire and build the self-confidence that kids need to become champions in the classroom and in life.

Studies show that kids with adult mentors tend to complete homework assignments, stay in school and are less likely to use drugs and alcohol than their peers who do not spend time with a caring adult.

In 2008, the graduation rate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was 70.8 percent. Through the Graduating Our Future program students were paired with mentors, coaches and counselors, as well as before- and after-school tutors. Four years later the graduation rate has increased by ten points (80.9 percent). While there is still work to do to increase graduation rates to 90 percent or more, the collaboration between the school system, United Way of Forsyth County (Winston-Salem), the YMCA, family services and Big Brothers Big Sisters prove that evidence-based programs supported by volunteers can have a big impact on student success. At the heart of the curriculum was ensuring that each student had an adult mentor.

Working alongside their chosen mentor, students began making strides. After just two years, the school saw a 40 percent decrease in ninth graders who were failing. What's more, there was an 87 percent increase in sixth grade math scores and a 150 percent increase in their reading scores.

These significant results illustrate the value of mentors and the tremendous impact they can have on a child's life. It's proof that our society could stand to have more mentors.

Research shows that people across the country want to give back and invest in their communities, but they feel like they don't know how.

Volunteering to be a reader, tutor or mentor is a great avenue for giving that has a remarkable impact on the entire community.

Mentors help fill the gaps when schools are unable to commit financial resources to afterschool and other extended enrichment programs. A mentor is there to help kids who may otherwise fall through the cracks without a positive influence when the school day is through.

Mentorships and volunteering, in a larger sense, are about using human capital to improve communities and advance the common good. People have enormous potential to address critical social issues like creating a mentor program to help youth reach their education goals.

This summer I saw overwhelming participation in United Way's annual Day of Action. Volunteers representing 279 United Ways, in eight countries, came together for a single day of service focused on education and community improvement. More than 700,000 people benefitted from these volunteer activities and it was the largest showing of volunteers in the history of the event.

As we transition into the school year, let's continue this spirit of giving. We can harness it through mentoring and by encouraging adults to serve as readers and tutors. Working with kids not only helps them have a brighter future, but I believe mentors benefit from it as well. It's the ultimate win-win.