The documentary Waiting for “Superman” started a national dialogue about our education system by showing how an excellent education for low-income children is often a matter of chance. But the film largely overlooked a vital force that is making a difference for millions of students today — volunteers.
Everyday across our country, volunteers go into classrooms, community centers, and churches to help young people achieve their potential in life. Serving as tutors, mentors, and readers, these volunteers — including hundreds of thousands of participants in national service — work with teachers to help children learn to read, stay in school, and achieve a better future.
The critical role of engaged citizens in education was a recurring theme of the first annual Building a Grad Nation Summit that took place March 21-23 in Washington D.C. The summit brought together nearly 900 education stakeholders to discuss solutions to the high school dropout crisis in America as part of America’s Promise Alliance’s 10-year Grad Nation campaign.
The summit highlighted the positive news that the U.S. graduation rate has increased, from 72 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2008. A new report issued at the gathering showed that the number of schools where 40 percent or more of the students do not graduate continues to decline.
But the sad and unacceptable fact remains that one in four U.S. public school students drops out - including close to 40 percent of minority students. Tackling this challenge must remain an urgent national priority, and we have a long road ahead to meet the Grad Nation goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. There is nothing more critical than making sure every school in every community delivers every young person the knowledge, passion, and skills to enjoy lives of meaning, to fulfill their potential, and to compete in the global economy.
Speakers at the summit highlighted the need for effective teachers, involved parents, and an engaged community. “We have to turn around our chronically low performing schools,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We’ve seen a huge amount of change recently, but the fact of the matter is we have a disproportionate number of high school dropouts coming a small percentage of schools. School districts can’t do this by themselves. It has to involve the entire community. All of us have to come together to support this work.”
Vice President Biden highlighted the importance of high expectations. “Children tend to become that what you expect of them. We should expect more, but deliver more, as you are fighting to do — to get high school curricula to the point that people are literally equipped to graduate.”
In his remarks, Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Patrick A. Corvington highlighted the transformative effect that national service participants are having on students in low-performing schools. These caring and capable adults “provide a vision and opportunity for young people in this country to imagine a future; to see a different horizon; to see themselves walking that long walk across the stage at a high school graduation; to see themselves taking those first steps onto a college campus; to sit in a classroom with peers they’d never thought they’d sit next to.”
Education has always been one of CNCS’ highest priorities. Last year we invested $550 million — or more than half of our funding —in education, supporting tutoring, mentoring, and other services to help more than three million disadvantaged youth learn, engage, and achieve. As part of the expanded mandate of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and our new five-year Strategic Plan, we are placing a greater emphasis on education and bringing our proven national service efforts to more schools and communities to help students graduate from high school and go on to college.
Sandy Scott is Senior Communications Advisor at the Corporation for National and Community Service.