05/28/2014 06:27 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Don't Call Them Dropouts: Call Them Leaders-in-Waiting

"How many of you came here primarily to get a GED?" Many hands go up. "How many came primarily to get a job?" Many more hands go up. "How many of you, if you thought you were joining a great movement to end poverty and injustice and fix the conditions of poverty in this community, would want to join?" All hands go up.

This is what happens when we ask these questions to incoming classes of YouthBuild students. They are waiting to be invited to take leadership to improve the world. Over 90 percent of them have left high school without a diploma. They are seeking a way back into education, employment, hope and opportunity. They left school for all the reasons described in the superb new report called "Don't Call Them Dropouts" published by America's Promise on May 20. They left due to a combination of toxic environments of violence, abuse and poverty that wore them down; unresponsive school systems with a shortage of people who seemed to care; overwhelming family responsibilities; peer connections beckoning to the streets; and lack of a strong support system to provide wise guidance.

The moment they find adults and peers who care, who show it is possible to overcome their own past failures and the challenges they face, they become eager not only to get their own lives on track but also to make a difference. Through YouthBuild they make that difference by building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people in their neighborhoods during half the week; in the other half they earn their high school diploma or the equivalent in small classes with caring teachers and supportive peers. Antoine Bennett, a YouthBuild graduate, describes the impact on him of participation: "I used to be a menace to my community; now I am a minister to it."

Since YouthBuild was authorized as a federal program in 1992, community-based YouthBuild programs in over 270 urban and rural communities in America have welcomed and embraced more than 130,000 young people who were born in poverty, faced incredible obstacles, and left high school without a diploma. Everything we have seen confirms the observations of the "Don't Call Them Dropouts" report. There is enormous talent waiting to be tapped, currently being wasted, in our nation.

America's Promise aims to raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent, from its current 80 percent.

However, in poverty-stricken communities the rate is radically lower, closer to 60percent. Concentrated resources are needed in these communities, providing more teachers with smaller classes, more classroom assistants, more guidance counselors, more parent involvement, more training for teachers in how to show in myriad ways that they care about the students. In addition, parents need jobs and more affordable housing so they can provide for their children with less toxic stress.

The rewards to our nation will be enormous! Less violence, less dependency, less pain and shame; more responsibility, more productivity, more family and community coherence, more pride. The cultural impact will be enormous, and the return on investment will be substantial.

In the period of time between now and the achievement of 90 percent high school graduation rates in low-income communities, we also need to expand investment in the second chance programs that allow young people to reconnect with education, employment, community service and leadership. After leaving high school without a diploma, most of them realize very soon that they must have an education to survive. Without a diploma, and if they have a criminal record it is even worse, they can barely find a job. What are they to do? The schools typically won't let them back in. There must be other doors open to them with signs above and friendly greeters that say, "You are welcome here. We will help you finish your education, get ready for a good job or college, set your goals and make a plan to build the life you really want to live. We know you have value, intelligence, and goodness waiting to be expressed. We will help you find it and live by it."

When such doors are open, young people flock to them. We need to keep them open. Fortunately, last week a bi-partisan bi-cameral leadership committee in the House and Senate released their new Workforce Innovations and Opportunity Act that will keep Job Corps and YouthBuild intact as federal programs, and will increase the proportion of workforce investment dedicated to disconnected youth. This is a small step in the right direction, but the level of investment is well below what is needed.

It is our job as a nation to tackle all three challenges at once: 1) diminish poverty through providing education and employment; 2) improve the organizational culture of the public schools to demonstrate deep concern for every student and respond to their needs with greater awareness, engaging them in the decisions that affect them; and 3) expand the on-ramps for reconnecting with education and employment, including service and leadership development, for young people who have already left high school without a diploma. If we listen to the young people, this is what we will do.

If you want to listen even more deeply to the young people who have already stepped into leadership roles offering a broader and more detailed agenda, read the Recommendations to Increase Opportunity and Decrease Poverty in America, produced by the National Council of Young Leaders, a group of young adults raised in poverty who have overcome the odds and created a platform for America.