- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Nationwide, it is estimated that 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year. This is nearly 1-in-3 - or an average of 7,000 students per day. These numbers are even more devastating among minorities; almost 50 percent of black and Latino students don’t graduate on time.

The costs of this epidemic are tremendous. According to the Cities in Crisis 2009 report, in the 50 largest U.S. cities, the median income for high school dropouts is $14,000 - significantly lower than the median income of $24,000 for high school graduates and $48,000 for college graduates. Nationally, high school dropouts are the only group of workers who saw income levels decline over the last 30 years.

The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that high school dropouts from the class of 2006-07 will cost the U.S. more than $329 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity over their lifetimes. Furthermore, dropouts are more likely to end up in jail, rely on public programs and do without health insurance than those who stay in school.

Clearly this is not just an education problem - this is a community problem. So what are we doing about it?

One initiative worth paying attention to is the dropout campaign being waged by America’s Promise Alliance. Founded in 1997 by Gen. Colin L. Powell and currently chaired by his wife, Alma Powell, the organization is a cross-sector partnership of 300 companies and nonprofit, faith-based and advocacy organizations dedicated to improving the lives of young people.

They have turned their attention to the nation’s dropout crisis, and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have hosted more than 35 dropout summits in cities across the country. The summits are designed to bring together city leaders, citizens and student advocates to develop workable solutions and action plans. This has led to important community building within these cities, and these communities are starting to share their activities with one another as a spirit of cross-collaboration helps drive this work forward.

Leaders from 12 of the participating cities gathered in the District last week to talk concretely about how they can deepen their work in their respective communities. Prior to the meeting, each city team published a short description of its on-the-ground initiatives.

In New Orleans, for example, 30 community organizations have come together to create the New Orleans Kids Partnership. With the intent of letting no child slip through the cracks, the organization provides wraparound support for students up to age 19 in designated schools, with a focus on youths ages 4 to 14.

Support services include mentoring and tutoring, service-learning opportunities, food programs, mental health services, career exploration and more. By their estimates, they have reached 20,000 youths with an impressive 5.6 million contact hours - the equivalent of six weeks per child.

The District’s dropout prevention planning committee is putting its emphasis on parent and family involvement of middle-school children - with the goal of increasing awareness of the early signs of dropouts, connecting families with community resources, and developing a strong, community-based culture of success.

These kinds of initiatives are starting to chip away at the crisis. What was clear from the conversations in the District last week, however, is that our school communities cannot stand alone in solving this problem. We must recognize that dropout prevention and a city’s economic prosperity go hand in hand.

What is it going to take to make sure our communities thrive in the 21st century? The answer lies in our ability to drive toward new opportunity through innovation, creativity and perseverance.

This is grounded in our ability to foster this spirit in our young people. If we neglect to engage almost 50 percent of our student population in this pursuit - we are squandering massive potential while incurring significant social costs. So as cities think carefully about the key strategic interventions that are going to dramatically reduce the dropout rate, they need to make the direct connection to economic prosperity and vice versa.

Studies show that students stay in school when they believe their education is relevant, they are challenged in a rigorous way and they have strong relationships. Engaging them as community problem solvers and innovators - and giving them the skill sets and community connections to help them succeed - is a smart way to get a win-win-win economically, socially and academically. And this has the potential of achieving America’s promise.

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founders of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development firm. They can be reached at authors@ lifeentrepreneurs.com.

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