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Opinion

Year-end is Prime Time for Reflection

President & CEO, America's Promise Alliance
Where are we and where do we need to go to create the conditions for success for every young person in America? I ask myself that question often, and year-end is prime time for reflection. In 2016, I saw lots of possibility and lots of peril, too, and that fills me with a combination of hope and determination for the work ahead. 
 
Graduation Gains, Graduation Gaps

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I was fortunate to be able to join our Board Chair Alma Powell and Founding Chair General Colin Powell at Banneker High School this fall when President Obama announced that the nation had once again hit a record on-time high school graduation rate. 

Banneker was a perfect setting – its students, almost all low-income and of color, have a 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rate. Even more than that perfect score, the faces, smiles, and cheers of the young people in the Banneker auditorium told a story of optimism, belief, and confidence. Those young people saw possibility within their reach.
 
The world of possibility that can come with high school graduation fuels our GradNation campaign. This year, we reached 83.2 percent, with significant gains for low-income students and students of color. But too many young people -- about one in every six kids -- are still not graduating on time. For them, there is more peril than possibility.

 

Walk of Opportunity, Opportunity Youth

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Just a couple of weeks later, on another cold, shiny, fall morning, I joined hundreds of Year Up participants in the D.C. area for a “Walk of Opportunity.” We stopped at the MLK Memorial where, in the shadow of the 30-foot-tall statue of Dr. King, young people told their stories of hardship and setbacks, opportunity and perseverance.

Year Up, like others, has embraced the idea of “high expectations, high support.” That mantra was repeated over and over as the young participants described the real partners they found in Year Up and each other. They spoke of a new world of possibility.

I think Dr. King would have been moved by those testimonials – but keenly aware of their context. These young people, Year Up, and other similar programs are all very promising, but we can’t look away from the fact that there are still more than 5 million young people between 16 and 24 who are neither in school or at work. That’s a tragedy for them and for the nation.
 
A Roof Over Our Heads 

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Over the past several years, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a buoyant, insightful young woman named Stephanie Watkins Cruz. Life hasn’t been easy for Steph. In high school, her family was evicted and moved into a Quality Inn for months at a time. 

She got through it with help from teachers, her passion for dance, and what she calls an inherited “stubbornness and steel resolve.” Steph now lives in her own apartment, works in the nonprofit sector, and is getting her masters’ at UNC Chapel Hill. A world of possibility! She’s on her way, she serves on our board, and she helps us keep it real.

The challenges Steph – and so many others – have faced are the subject of a recent report by our partners at Civic Enterprises. Hidden in Plain Sight found that student homelessness is on the rise, with more than 1.3 million homeless students identified in the 2013-14 school year alone. And just last week, the U.S. Department of Education released new state-by-state data that shows student homelessness increasing in more than 35 states.
 
We have to do more to recognize and respond to the perils that young people face outside of school – including homelessness, trauma, and abuse – so they can stay focused on the possibilities in their lives. 
 
Caring Adults, Everyday Fear

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Eddie Blackstone is a young man from Baltimore who ran into all kind of obstacles growing up. Luckily, he also ran into a program called Thread that surrounds young people with caring adults who create a sense of belonging, belief, and safety. As Eddie said about his mentor at a recent gathering, “She’s always been my emotional backing.”

That feeling of security is especially important right now. Our colleagues at the Center for Promise conducted a remarkable project earlier this year in which young people asked other young people what stood in the way of their well-being. The stark and simple answer: Young people of color don’t feel safe. For them, ever-present peril stands in the way of possibility.
 
Join Us: #Recommit2Kids

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This balance between possibility and peril is on my mind as I think about young people in America. America’s Promise will mark its 20th anniversary in 2017. We can and will celebrate progress and the possibilities that have been created for so many young people, but we’ll also recognize the profound peril far too many young people still experience.

That’s why we see this coming year as a time for all of us to recommit to the young people of this country (#Recommit2Kids). I hope you will join us. For young people to live up to their promise, we have to live up to our promise to them.
 
With thanks for all you do and best wishes for a happy holiday and a good New Year.