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When I was 8 years old, my teacher told my parents that I was failing third grade, that I was mentally retarded (a label used frequently in those days) and that I was essentially unteachable.
Thankfully, she didn’t have the last word.
Three adults in my neighborhood – a barber, a Methodist minister and a friend’s mother – saw something in me that neither my teacher nor my parents could see. With their strong encouragement and even stronger discipline, I graduated from high school with honors, and then won a full scholarship to Davidson College.
Relationships, outside of school and family, made all the difference for me. The importance of relationships is the centerpiece of Don’t Quit on Me, a new and powerful study by America’s Promise Alliance. The findings explain how loving, supportive relationships of all kinds act as the emotional glue that holds kids together when life circumstances seem to be pulling them apart.
And life circumstances are pulling them apart. More than half of the nearly 500,000 young people who leave school before graduating each year are dealing with five or more adverse life experiences (illness, homelessness, hunger, abuse, violence and more).
Their struggles are tougher because they have few sources of support. America’s Promise researchers found that those who left high school without graduating were twice as likely as graduates to report having reached out to “no one” and half as likely to have reached out to a teacher for help.
Without help, these young people – kids like I was – spiral downward academically until the only apparent option is to drop out. Their sense of futility, I’m sorry to say, starts far too early.
I routinely see the struggles of under-served children through a national tutoring and mentoring program I oversee called Experience Corps. A program of AARP Foundation, Experience Corps recruits adults over 50 to help students learn to read at grade level by third grade. Volumes of research confirm that children who don't reach this milestone have only a 25 percent chance of ever graduating from high school.
Fortunately, what I also see through Experience Corps is the loving and seemingly unbreakable bond created between adult volunteers and children. With support from Experience Corps members, young students across the nation are improving academically, learning emotional tools and skills, and beginning to dream about what’s possible in their lives.
When young people growing up in challenging circumstances begin dreaming about their futures, that’s a big marker of success.
As the late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays – former president of Morehouse College, one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s mentors and one of my heroes – said, the real tragedy in life is not failing to achieve your dreams; it’s having no dreams at all.
So what can we do to help? I hope you’ll take two simple steps.
1. Start to build a relationship with a young person. If each of us who is fortunate enough to have a secure and stable life would forge a relationship with just one child or teenager or young adult who needs support, we would be well on our way to eliminating the dropout crisis in this country.
2. Encourage a young person to dream. As a Philadelphia high school teacher said, "We hold our children's dreams until they can hold them for themselves." If enough of us hold on tight, I believe we can turn around generations of struggling kids.
Take it from a former third-grader whose life was turned around because of three ordinary people with huge hearts: Relationships do matter.
Lester Strong is vice president of external affairs and CEO of Experience Corps, AARP Foundation.
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