Because That's What We're Expected to Do

Summer 2011

When I attended the Annual Building A Grad Nation Summit in Washington DC as a youth leader, I remember hearing the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s remarks about why a student may dropout of school. He shared with us a story about an interaction he had with a student from an at-risk community. He asked him why he rebelled in class and didn’t pay attention to his work. The student responded, “Because that’s what we are expected to do.“ This made a huge impression on Secretary Duncan and many others including me because it proved that students deliver what is expected of them.  How can we expect students to excel in school if they think we have already given up on them? 

The movement that America’s Promise Alliance has started is aiming to reverse this issue. They want to empower young people to continue their studies and stop the high school dropout crisis—7,000 students drop out every school day; one every 26 seconds. 

It was a very exciting moment when I found out I was selected to be a judge for America’s Promise Alliance 100 Best Communities project. I felt privileged to be just one of two youth judges chosen for this job. I was honored that a group of highly accomplished adults cared enough about my opinion to save a seat for me on their judging committee. Not only was I now involved with this but I had just finished leading a youth grant for the Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES!) which we implemented in schools in DC and LA. YES! Incorporates yoga and meditation to provide stress relief to students. The underlying belief is that a calm, centered mind and relaxed body allows students to make healthy decisions and not consider dropping out as an option. 

With that enthusiasm, I began reading the summaries of the best communities throughout the nation. I tried to imagine what a best community for a young person should look like. In my mind I saw a place where youth felt safe to be outside at any time; felt a sense of belonging; felt their ideas were welcomed; and had a special bond with adults. A place where adults wouldn’t just talk about involving and consulting youth in the affairs of the community but actually take concrete steps to make that a reality. I tried to select communities that matched that vision in my head. While many of them did, only a few were outstanding. 

Another criteria I used to evaluate the summaries was to see how they met the objectives of the Five Promises: Caring Adults, Safe Places, A Healthy Start, Effective Education, and Opportunities to Help Others. Some of the best examples that caught my eye included a local State Assembly member who lives on a food stamp budget for a month every year and blogs about it to raise awareness. What a caring, honest and ethical adult who is clearly looking out for her community! 

So many communities that were considered dangerous invested in measures to create safe places for their youth—one community assigned certain houses along school routes to be “safe houses” for the kids walking to and from school. Many of the communities are opening health centers or boys and girls clubs where kids can play sports and other activities to get active and stay in shape. In other communities, students are given many educational opportunities such as apprentice programs, student employment, internships, job shadowing, leadership classes, mentoring mock interviews, scholarships and more. Youth are also given service opportunities to help better their communities. Their objective to instill in students a desire to do service is a good virtue to practice at a young age. 

Why is it important to meet the objectives of the Five Promises? According to America’s Promise Alliance, “Children who receive at least four of the Five Promises are much more likely than those who experience only one or zero Promises to succeed academically, socially and civically. They are more likely to avoid violence, contribute to their communities and achieve high grades in school.”

What America’s Promise Alliance is doing is in a way revolutionary—they have taken into their hands a very serious challenge that the US is facing and have invited youth as partners in solving it. They have not only heard our ideas but have also poured huge funds into implementing them. Why? Because after all, we deserve the opportunity to create the kind of future we will inherit.