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Nearly Half a Million Youth Drop Out of High School Every Year. Here’s Why One Didn’t.

Communities In Schools of Miami matches at-risk youth with internships and workplace mentors every year, and they’re seeing remarkable results. This story is part of a series highlighting 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees that are supporting innovative, scalable programs that place low-income youth on a path to college and career success. The $3 million Fund is led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance.

Dropping Out to Get a JobShyrome Walton, 18, lives in Opa-locka, Florida, a town that recently made the FBI’s list of small cities with the highest violent crime rates in America.

“I grew up in a bad situation,” she said. “I grew up in a situation where my father wasn’t around.”

Like many of the one in five kids growing up in poverty, Walton’s bad situation at home eventually started to affect her situation at school.

“I went to four different elementary schools,” she said, pointing to the behavior problems she says she learned from all the fighting she saw around her. And in middle school, her grades started to suffer.

But right before she got to high school, Walton took a hard look at the adults in her neighborhood. And she decided she didn’t want to be like them.

“I just wanted to be more than that,” she said. “I wanted to be able to afford a better life for my children and for myself. I wanted to be my own example.”

That determination helped Walton improve her behavior and her grades. She stopped doing “the things that I used to do—the things that were expected of me, the things people expect of a child that was raised in a bad home.”

She joined the debate team, the auto club and Communities In Schools of Miami. Things were going well. Until junior year.

Dropping Out to Get a Job

In Walton’s junior year of high school, family finances were shaky, and she felt obligated to quit school, get a job and help out.

Of the roughly half a million young people who drop out of high school every year, about a third leave school so they can work and help support their parents.

“I felt like I needed to step up to the plate,” she said. “I cried about it, because I didn’t want to drop out. I really, really didn’t want to drop out.”

Before she made a decision, Walton stayed after school one day to talk to Natasha Santana-Viera, the Site Coordinator for Communities In Schools of Miami, about her situation.

“[Ms. Santana] told me that a lot of people drop out of high school, and they don’t end up becoming as successful as they dreamed that they would be, as they could have been,” Walton said.

Santana-Viera pulled out a chart, showing Walton how many young people who don’t finish high school end up in poverty. “It’s high,” Walton recalled. “And I probably would have been one of them.”

Walton didn’t drop out, and her family’s financial situation eventually stabilized enough that she didn’t have to worry about getting a job to support them. Instead, she could focus on her future career. 

‘Relationships, not programs, change children’

If you’re a youth or education advocate, chances are you’ve heard of Communities In Schools (CIS), and the motto that its founder Bill Milliken coined: “It’s relationships, not programs, that change children.”

CIS has 164 affiliates across the country, working with local businesses, social services agencies, healthcare providers and volunteers to help students like Walton get the support they need to succeed in school.

CIS of Miami offers a program called CHAMP (Communities Helping Adolescents Mentor Program) that transports students to their mentors’ workplace for career, personal and academic mentoring. A recent grant from the Youth Opportunity Fund, supported by the Citi Foundation, has enabled CIS of Miami to continue the program after 17 years and to expand it to include a paid summer internship, reaching an additional 200 students.

Walton was matched with a job and mentor from Lehman Auto World, Tim Desmond, the company’s human resources director. “[Tim] taught me about everything in the industry,” she said. “He was my main mentor, but then we had additional mentors we could learn from.”

Elizabeth Mejia, the president of Communities In Schools of Miami, is careful to stress that the goal of the program isn’t to place students in a specific industry but to give students the skills, confidence and support they need to be successful in whichever field they choose.

“It is mentoring first and foremost,” Mejia said.

And it’s getting results.

CIS Students See Better Grades, Improved Attitude

Mejia says that the CIS model has significantly improved students’ academic performance. “We see improvement in grades and attitude. We hear from teachers that students are less disruptive, more cooperative, more polite. They see behavior changes.”

That was the case for Walton. She says Communities In Schools of Miami helped her raise her GPA from a 2.5 to a 3.4.

But it also gave her more than that. The relationships she found through the program kept her from dropping out of high school. Instead of becoming a statistic, Walton became someone with a plan.

Today, Walton is a senior at Miami Carol City High School. In the fall, she plans to attend Miami-Dade College, where she will work toward her associate’s degree in diagnostic medical sonography.

“I want to come back and give to some of those families who are really, really struggling,” she said. “Because I know some of them personally. And I know that they are trying. But they just can’t make it.”

And then, she added this: “So why not help them?”


The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative focused on preparing young people to thrive in today’s economy. In 2014, the Citi Foundation made a three-year, $50 million commitment to boost the career readiness of 100,000 low-income youth in 10 cities across the United States.

Learn more about other Youth Opportunity Fund grantees, including City Service Corps, Per Scholas, and Urban Alliance.