AMERICAN GRADUATE -- September 24, 2012 at 12:48 PM EDT
Call is Out to Sabotage the Dropout Crisis
American Graduate Day was observed on Sept. 22 with a multi-platform event featuring a live television broadcast, radio playlist and participation from more than 20 national organizations, celebrities and athletes to spotlight solutions to the nation's dropout crisis.
Again and again the program hosts returned to the central themes: a million American high schoolers drop out of schools in any given year, the cost to the economy and society are incalculable, and we can do better. Then they spent the rest of the program showing you how. American Graduate Day was a culmination of a year of reporting and programming across public media in the United States, and made the daunting task of helping more teens finish high school urgent, and doable.
The National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino civil rights organization, helps run a charter school in Los Angeles? Who knew? A not-for-profit called BuildOn takes students who are on the verge of dropping out and gives them international service learning experiences, of the kind that has become commonplace for upper middle class kids, but is much less available to poor kids. Harlem RBI takes teens with school troubles, puts them on baseball and softball teams, and requires tutoring, workshops, and homework help to keep a player's average high enough to stay on the team.
Smart, innovative leaders have created a stunning array of approaches to fighting the alienation, school failure, and lack of faith in the future so common among the high school students who don't finish. Poverty, underfunded school systems, and lack of parental involvement all play a role in student failure, but those big social challenges are much harder to fight.
For me, part of the power of the 7-hour broadcast was cumulative. I realize there are few human beings in the United States who watched all of the program...but no matter. If you dipped in and out, sat and watched closely for an hour or two, or passed by during channel surfing in two different parts of the day, one couldn't help but be struck by the inventiveness, energy, and dedication of the people trying to get students to graduation day.
One of the most dismaying aspects of the dropout problem only occurs to young adults after they have already dropped out of school. Often, the school does not really want you back. Many school systems make it too difficult to "drop in" after a student has dropped out, or simply have an age limit for students starting a new year of school. A dropout has to then find a way to cobble together missing classes or credit through other programs to earn a diploma, or prepare to take an exam to earn an equivalent credential.
There is help. Take YouthBuild, covered by the NewsHour in a Paul Solman report. Founder Dorothy Stoneman saw that flaw in the educational system, and founded the organization to both get dropouts that diploma and teach a marketable skill. YouthBuild chapters across America, and now in affiliates around the world, teach construction trades and provide the training and teaching needed to finish a diploma. The enhanced dedication, work habits, and school success to replace what had been years of failure put young adults back on the road to successful futures.
Tashawna is a delightful reminder of how lives can be changed. Now in her early 20s she has a high school diploma, a job, and is steadily reducing the mountain of credits she needs to earn a BA part-time. She had dropped out of her Brooklyn high school after years of sporadic attendance and even less steady school achievement. By her own admission, she was floundering. She enrolled in YouthBuild, learned building trade skills, and has had steady work since leaving the program.
For Tashawna, there's a less apparent but no less powerful boost her family gets from her success. Her kid sister was also on the verge of dropping out...and is finishing high school. Spurred by a new energy in the house around school success, two younger siblings are earning steadily better grades and will not get into trouble later. Confident and proud of what she's done, Tashawna will tell anyone ready to listen it all started with Youthbuild.
The Caminos Nuevos charter high school serves the MacArthur Park neighborhood in Los Angeles, a low-income Mexican and Central American neighborhood in Los Angeles. Janet told me the school tells students they are going to finish high school, and they are going to go to college from the day they walk through the front door. In an intense four years Caminos provides a demanding college prep program, but also the kind of counseling adults at home almost certainly can't.
There is mutually assured damage from continuing the way we've been going. The United States needs those young people educated. And those young people need us...We can do better.
We tend to underestimate the value of social capital in trying to assess equal opportunity. A high schooler with two college-educated parents may have very similar aptitude to a fellow student with one parent who finished the sixth grade. When it comes time to prepare for college and apply for admission, the educated parents can provide significantly more help with the hidden, inner game of transcript building, standardized tests, application essays, and school selection.
Janet worked hard and got good grades. Caminos Nuevos got her all the advice and strategy help she needed to get the biggest bang from her strong transcript, even taking students on college tours. Smiling easily and confidently telling her story on the set of American Graduate Day, Janet mentions this is not her first trip to New York. She visited Columbia University, one of the toughest tickets in American higher education, with Caminos Nuevos. She has been enrolled at Williams College, an elite liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. She's going to be OK.
When the cameras go off, producers tell you you're done through the wire in your ear, and scripts get dropped in a recycling bin, what has been accomplished? Will any more American teens graduate? Will more of them be ready to attend and complete college, or qualify for skilled work that requires a high school diploma?
There is mutually assured damage from continuing the way we've been going. The United States needs those young people educated. And those young people need us, concerned adults ready to step out of their daily routine and intrude in the steady production of dropouts who go on to less promising adult lives. We can do better. The stunning seven hours of television, and many more hours of radio and online reporting, are a call for all of us to sabotage the dropout machinery. I'm not sure we have a choice.
Click here for a rundown on what's ahead during American Graduate Week.
American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.