- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

A new school year presents fresh opportunities for young people all over the country to consider their options, set goals and strive for success. Some will achieve through academics, some through athletics and the arts, and some as leaders in both the classroom and community. But, for 1.2 million U.S. students, that success will never come. Those students will not become teachers or coaches, writers or leaders. Those students, at the rate of nearly 6,700 per school day, will become high school dropouts.

Numerous efforts have attempted to address the dropout crisis and improve graduation rates, yet every 26 seconds, another student drops out of school. We must not - cannot - allow another year to go by as a million more children become the tragic statistics of our collective failure to keep them in school. Their futures are at stake, and with them, the future of our great country.

Every child, regardless of age, race, or socio-economic level, needs certain basic resources as a foundation for success: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, an effective education, and opportunities to help others. The America’s Promise Alliance defines these resources as the Five Promises, and when young people receive them, our research shows they are much more likely to succeed. With our partners in the lead, the Alliance is working hard to deliver these Promises to our nation’s young people.

Despite our best efforts, barriers exist. Poverty and the frequently resulting unequal access to resources persist as major hurdles in our nation’s schools. However, in the framework of the Five Promises, we have a great equalizer. When students have access to all five, their outcomes transcend differences in race and financial background. In particular, service and service-learning play a powerful role in children’s lives. Service unites youth in ways more lasting and profound than differences divide them. Service provides connections to community, to school, and to other young people, with whom they work, side by side, united in a common goal. Service benefits not only those on the receiving end, but also those who give of themselves. And, when undertaken in the context of curriculum-based opportunities, known as service-learning, helping others has a tremendous impact on the way students view their education, and the ways in which they might help the broader society as they mature.

In a recent survey of service-learning students from the America’s Promise Voices Study, 94 percent of 8 to 21-year-olds agree that “I would like to make the world a better place,” and 84 percent agree with the statement “I can make a difference in the world.” More than two-thirds believe that “sometimes people my age have a better understanding of how to fix the world’s problems than grown-ups do.” This research shows that young people want opportunities to be engaged in their communities. Eighty-three percent of students surveyed by Civic Enterprises said if their school offered service-learning classes, they would enroll in them. Sadly, of those same students, only 16 percent said that their schools offered these classes, and that number dropped to 8 percent at low-performing high schools. Moreover, 64 percent agreed that service-learning would have a fairly big effect on preventing them from dropping out of school. Our young people are asking for opportunities to make a difference, not only in the lives of others, but also in their own. They are seeking ways to take responsibility, to build a better future, to experience feelings of accomplishment and self-worth. We must answer their call.

Through our 200 partner organizations, America’s Promise Alliance is expanding efforts to offer our country’s youth meaningful, community-based, service-learning opportunities, and improve their chances of completing their education. Our “Ready for the Real World” initiative targets the vulnerable middle school population - many students who ultimately drop out of school say they became disengaged during their middle school years.

On September 12, I will co-chair the Service Nation Summit in New York City. Uniting 500 leaders of all ages and from every sector of American life - from universities and foundations, to business and politics - the summit will celebrate the power and potential of citizen service, while addressing America’s greatest social challenges. Following the great tradition of all presidents in recent history who have called attention to the issue of American volunteering, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will speak at a candidates’ forum about their views on the role of citizenship and service.

By aligning our efforts and focusing on service, we can improve the lives of America’s young people. We can decrease the number of high school dropouts and increase the number of students who complete their education and graduate. Not only will we further engage students with their education, but we help bridge the growing chasms of inequity in the process. The challenges we face are great, but greater still are the rewards for our country and our children’s futures when we work together on a common goal.

Alma J. Powell serves as Board Chair for America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership alliance committed to the well-being of children.

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