How can communities support at-risk students?
It's a question that I am frequently asked and one that hits home, because I was once that student. Furthermore, it is an especially poignant question when one considers the fact that some 1.3 million high school students drop out of school, each year.
When thinking about the long-term success of our country, this statistic is difficult to understand. I would argue, there isn't a single issue that is more important or relevant to our long-term standing than education. If we can't support our students now, how can we support our nation in the future?
This is the reason I became involved in hosting American Graduate Day 2014. Part of a long-term commitment by public media, the annual broadcast engages communities across the country to help kids stay on the path to graduation and celebrates those individuals and groups who are working hard every day to make it happen. (The third annual daylong event was broadcast live from New York City at the Tisch WNET Studios at Lincoln Center and aired nationally on public media stations this Saturday, September 27.)
When asked about the top ways that communities and individuals can help at-risk kids, I offer 2 solutions: be a good mentor and invest in the future. While these ideas look small on paper, their effects are huge and we can get started on them now.
While there isn't one reason why kids drop out, a major factor for many students is that they don't have a good role model or lack a strong family support system.
At a recent conference, I asked a group of very special high school students what motivates them. I also asked them to name their greatest teacher or influence. Several answered a parent or a family member. It was fantastic to hear about the family support of education in this community, but not everyone has that. One student, Giselle, told me her father had cancer and was unable to support her. Fortunately for her, a teacher stepped in during her sophomore year and was able to make a strong connection.
This is why we need to develop mentoring programs and encourage those in the community to become mentors and engage with their students. Strong relationships with teachers can be crucial to keeping students on track to graduate. Even if they're not direct relatives, they can turn into your family. Giselle's story as well as my own personal journey support this.
My mother knew the value of education. In fact, she was my first teacher. But as a single mother in a rough neighborhood with three kids who cared more about Reeboks than arithmetic, my mom couldn't do it on her own. She made incredible sacrifices, and in doing so, allowed me to receive a quality education surrounded by passionate teachers and peers. These mentors have always been there for me and really made a difference. Even now, I talk frequently with many of my "lifelong educators." One of whom was my 11th grade Social Studies/American History teacher, Lt. Michael Murnane. He found a way to make the material he taught personal and relevant. He also taught me how to network and make the connections to get to where I am today.
There are a million students each year that don't have that level of support. For myself and Giselle, when a parent or family is nowhere to be seen, a caring mentor or teacher can make the difference between a student dropping out, or making something of him/herself. This is not a theory. It's real, possible and doable.
Investing time and effort in these kids means investing in our country's future. In the 21st century economy, if a few years of high school is the only education one receives, it will not be enough for America to become one of the world's leading innovators. And we are already experiencing this to some extent.
We cannot have a conversation about the future of the United States without making sure education is at the top of the list. Talking about the job market or ISIS means nothing if we are letting one million students slip by each year and lose the opportunity to solve these problems in the future. Our greatest challenges will not be fought overseas, but tackled right here at home. The core of any issue facing this country is education.
Right now, we have an opportunity to combat these issues early on. We have an opportunity to understand how to capitalize on our human aptitude and potential. We can make global leaders right now. To do this, we must support our educators, whose job and mission is to build our human capital. We also must understand that they cannot cherry pick whom they educate.
There are Wes Moores in every community -- in every race, ethnicity, and socio-economic group in America. There are young kids who are on the precipice of greatness and don't even know it.
What matters for these students and their educators are expectations. It is a harsh reality, but we are products of expectations. If students never expect to be successful, they will never put in the work and dedication it takes to achieve their goals. When we're telling our students that they can and should achieve more, we need to put in the time and effort so they believe it. Raising students' expectations of themselves can help to end "dropout factories" -- those high schools where students have low expectations and often have as much of a chance of dropping out as they do of graduating.
If our country expects greatness, then it is our responsibility to support our students and those who instill expectations of greatness in our youth.
I said before, this is real and doable. We can put our students on the trajectory to do great things. Become a mentor. Reach out to one of our American Graduate Day partners. Invest in our country's future by helping these kids. For the first time ever, we have an all-time nation high of 80 percent high school graduation rates. The goal is to elevate that number to 90% by 2020. By creating a community around education, we can do it.