This month, America’s Promise Alliance released a new report titled “Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” which takes an in depth look at the stories of youth who left high school before graduating. In their own voices, youth share their struggles and contribute to the larger ongoing narrative about why 20 percent of young people don’t finish high school on time.
The report breaks stereotypes about youths being bored or unmotivated. Rather, these youth are overwhelmed by the effects of toxic living conditions, such as homelessness, violent surroundings, abuse or neglect, catastrophic family health events, and the absence of caring adults who can help them succeed in school.
In this Q&A, America’s Promise Alliance President and CEO John Gomperts breaks down one of the report’s key findings – that youth who leave school before graduation are yearning to connect with others – and the recommendations to connect them with those extra supports.
People often say that the First Amendment to the Constitution is first for a reason – it is the most fundamental and most important. We think about our First Promise – Caring Adults – in the same way. It is the most fundamental and essential of the promises, and the path to the other promises. Quite simply, young people need the support of caring adults, family members and others, to help them navigate difficult circumstances and to help guide them toward bright futures.
Mentoring, especially structured mentoring relationships, fill this vital role – giving young people the support, challenge, guidance they need to grow and flourish.
The recently released report The Mentoring Effect , also documented the fact that 16 million young Americans are without formal or even informal mentors in their lives, leaving them short of caring adults in their lives who have the ability to help them through critical moments and choices. We at America’s Promise are dedicated to helping to increase the number of adults who are engaged in constructive relationships with young people, including a real growth in the number of mentoring relationships.
Real understanding begins with real listening. We can speculate all day long about what works and doesn’t work. But until we go to the source, we’re never going to find out the real story. Just do a quick Google search of ‘why do kids dropout of school,’ and you’ll get a whole host of reasons: school, lack of motivation, etc. But it’s not until you ask young people who didn’t finish school that you can get to the real answers. And we will never get the response right if we don’t start with understanding the real problems and challenges. That’s why we did the deep research and listening that resulted in the Don’t Call Them Dropouts report.
By and large, human beings are social creatures – we seek connections to find our place in the world. Our research found that this is absolutely true for the young people who aren’t finishing high school. They too are seeking connections. Sometimes those connections take them toward success, and sometimes those connections take them in the wrong direction. If we want better opportunities and outcomes for young people, we need to flood the zone with caring adults who have constructive engagements with those kids.
And it isn’t just connecting to “caring” adults – it is connecting to caring adults who have the knowledge, time, access, and other resources to help a young person successfully navigate school, community and life. In our survey, 85 percent of young people said that their parents expected them to graduate from high school on time, and yet they didn’t. It’s not that their parents didn’t love them, or want the best for them. So caring is an essential starting place for a constructive relationship, but caring alone is not enough to support the development of young person who is growing up in extremely challenging circumstances.
It’s naive for us to think that a young person – or any person for that matter – can focus on taking an algebra test or writing an essay, if that kid is worried about his or her personal safety, if that kid doesn’t know where and how he or she is going to eat next, or if he or she has no idea where to sleep that night.
Places where the young people were surveyed – places like YouthBuild, Gateway to College and Magic Johnson Bridgescape Centers are the types of places where many basic needs of the young person can be met. Once things like food, shelter and safety are in place, then it becomes easier to focus on academics, employment and proceeding on to the next steps in life. Most importantly, young people (all people) need to feel like they matter to someone. These groups and others like them emphasize creating positive connections between adults and youth (and among peers) as a key ingredient in each young person’s social, emotional, and academic development.
Both AmeriCorps writ large, and Experience Corps specifically, are built on the premise that human beings are the most important answer to the challenges that young people face. For those programs, that human connection can come in the form of direct service – tutoring, mentoring, coaching – or it can come in the form of recruiting and training of large numbers community volunteers who will have constructive relationships with young people.
The impact on the young people and on the schools is palpable in individual behavior and overall culture and atmosphere. These can be game-changing interventions. And if you doubt it, I urge you to visit an Experience Corps project, a CityYear site, a Reading Partners project, or A College Possible session. You will come away with a deep understanding of, and a passion for the power of caring relationships. I promise!