Looking Back, Moving Forward Header


Looking Back, Moving Forward

President & CEO, America's Promise Alliance

Dear Friends,

It’s December, and I’m a sucker for end-of-year lists – the best books, movies, music, plays and moments. I love the sorting and reflecting, the summing up and looking forward.

In many ways, the high points of 2015 for me were captured in the three hours I spent with Self Enhancement, Inc. (SEI) in Portland, Oregon.

The young people that SEI works with are almost all kids of color, mostly African-American, and almost all are low-income. Thirty percent have a parent or sibling in jail. They live in Oregon, which had the worst graduation rate of any state in 2013. Most are at high risk for dropping out.  

And yet, the young people SEI worked with achieved a 97 percent graduation rate. Yup, 97 percent! That’s on par with schools in the most affluent neighborhoods in America.

So what’s going on, what’s the secret? Two words: caring adults. SEI assigns each young person a mentor, called an SEI Coordinator, who works 24/7 to establish trust, build an individual success plan for each student, and track progress every day. Coordinators are full-time, paid mentors, each of whom is responsible for about 30 students.

As one college bound senior told me:  “Coordinators are like a second parent. You can go to them for anything.”

Not surprisingly, just about every Coordinator I met was a graduate of SEI. Their roots are in the same community, they’ve handled the same challenges as the students they work with today.

The cost for SEI:  $3,500 per student per year. The result: high school graduation and a bright future full of possibility. 

The time I spent with SEI staff and students reaffirmed for me the fundamental truths that America’s Promise has believed and pursued since our founding – the idea that every young person can learn and thrive, and that caring, engaged adults can make all the difference in a young person’s life chances and trajectory.

The Year in Review

The visit to Portland captures so much of what is good about our work this year.

First and foremost, the GradNation campaign continues to produce real results. The Department of Education just announced that the nation’s 2014 graduation rate has reached another record high, 82.3 percent.

There is still much to be done, but over the past few years we have conclusively shown that low graduation rates are neither inevitable nor inexorable. With focus and hard work, graduation rates can and do increase.

Communities continue to come together to commit themselves to raising graduation rates. Over the past year, we’ve had a hand in 29 GradNation Community Summits in locations ranging from Santa Fe to Salt Lake City, Philadelphia to Phoenix, and plenty in between.

We launched the GradNation State Activation Initiative to take what we’ve learned in communities around the country up to the state level. We’re working with leaders in Arizona, Massachusetts and Minnesota and building a larger group of state leaders eager to learn from others and share what they’re learning about raising graduation rates.

We dug deeper into the perspectives of young people, this time exploring the role of relationships in young peoples’ lives and choices. The result was a report called Don’t Quit on Me, which attracted great attention by offering new insights about how support from adults and peers can help to close the remaining gaps between those who graduate from high school on time and those who don’t.

We are focused on increasing high school graduation rates, but we’ve always known that getting that diploma isn’t the finish line. It’s really the starting line for adult success. This year we launched the Youth Opportunity Fund with 12 groups around the country working to increase young people’s readiness for the world of work – and we began to explore how we might better prepare young people for life after high school.

We added new organizations and communities to the Alliance, vastly expanded our social and digital media reach, convened the leaders of the GradNation campaign for Align & Act, and held the first Promise Night event in 10 years, and so much more.

Looking Ahead

I left Portland – and I will leave 2015 – impressed and hopeful. SEI and dozens of programs like it prove every day that with care and intentionality, focus and rigor, patience and bottomless dedication, we can produce remarkably good results with the young people that most of society assumes can’t and won’t make it.

“Think of the bigness of this work,” one of SEI’s Coordinators said to me. “We are saving lives.”


As we look to 2016, I’m confident that, together, we will help more young people finish high school prepared for the future. Together, we will work to make the promise of America real for every child.

Thank you for all you have done and for all that we will do together going forward.

All the best for the holidays and for a happy and healthy new year.