More mentors means fewer ‘dropouts’
Nico Rodriguez was 15 years old when he found himself living on the streets of Lowell, Mass., with no plans for a high school diploma, no home to call his own and, seemingly, no future. Rodriguez was a statistic: one of the 20 percent of students who do not finish high school on time, if ever.
Editorial pages often carry arguments for education reform, but despite the importance of issues such as Common Core and teacher tenure, bad policy isn’t what drove Rodriguez from school, nor is it the biggest problem facing most of the nation’s nongraduates. According to the most recent America’s Promise Alliance report, “Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” which surveyed 2,000 such young people from across the country, the reasons students leave school early are primarily environmental — including chronic absenteeism, homelessness, unsafe neighborhoods, negative role models and the need to be caregivers for parents and siblings.
What young people like Rodriguez need most is not necessarily more action in Washington but more action from us: caring adults willing to engage in a developmental relationship and the ability to help them imagine — and work toward — a better future. In a perfect world, this would be the role of every child’s parents, extended family and community of friends, but this is not a perfect world. Too many young people make it all the way through their teens without having known a single caring adult.
Last month in Los Angeles, city schools superintendent John Deasy welcomed back his administrators with an assignment: Look under your chairs, and you’ll find the name of a struggling student. “Find that youth,” Deasy said. “Stay with him or her until graduation. We are absolutely our brothers’ or sisters’ keepers.”
The Los Angeles effort is an investment in our shared future, because the numbers affect us all. Right now in the United States, about 2.5 million people ages 16 to 24 don’t have high school degrees and are not enrolled in school. With no high school diploma, these young people will be lucky to end up in dead-end jobs.
According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, were the United States to convert enough nongraduates into graduates to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate, it would result in an additional $8.1 billion in increased earnings every year. Nongraduates are disproportionately black and Hispanic, presenting much more significant risk for the communities of color that will make up the U.S. majority by 2043. This is not a winning formula for the United States’ future.
If you want to change the world, start with a single child. Look at the difference one caring adult made in Rodriguez’s life. After leaving school, Rodriguez found a mentor at a local teen center. Sakieth “Sako” Long, the director of Youth Success at the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell and once also labeled “at risk,” took Rodriguez under his wing and connected him with resources so he could manage the chaos in his life and begin to make time for success in school. Long helped Rodriguez toward a better future, one in which he was thriving, earning and contributing.
Rodriguez was resilient. He completed high school and is working two jobs and training to be a chef. He has started mentoring other young people and is making plans to buy his own home and start a business. More than anything, Rodriguez wants to be for his 3-year-old daughter the caring parent he never had for himself.
Imagine that you have an envelope beneath your chair, containing the name of a child in need and within your reach. He or she is heading back to school now but is at risk of not finishing. There are students like this in every community across the country, just waiting for someone to connect with them.
This school year, we challenge you to find your Nico Rodriguez. Reach out directly to your local school, parent-teacher association or a relevant nonprofit with an offer to volunteer. Go to GradNation.org and use the volunteering tool to identify opportunities within your ZIP code, or find out about opportunities as part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Graduate Day on Sept. 27. Whatever path you choose, know that everybody can do something, starting today.
The young people you help are the promise for a strong, competitive and secure national — and, indeed, global — future. With our support, they can become leaders, teachers, scientists, engineers — and chefs. The question is: Do we have the courage and commitment to reach under our chairs and create that future?
Colin L. Powell, a retired U.S. Army general and former secretary of state, was founding chairman of America’s Promise Alliance. Alma J. Powell is chairwoman of the group’s board. Laysha Ward is president of community relations for Target, which sponsored the “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” report. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.