The Wolf is In the Classroom

At LATINO Magazine’s conference on STEM education, Tom Luce, CEO of the National Math and Science Institute and former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, spoke about the education crisis America faces. “The wolf is around the corner,” Luce told us during the luncheon address.

Luce’s words, while chilling, were on target. If the nation does not move swiftly to graduate significantly more youth from high school equipped with the skills they need to matriculate and compete in the 21st-century marketplace, STEM careers and many other aspirations will remain out of reach. We can count on a diminished tax base and a generation of people who will be rendered unemployable in the global economy.

America is slipping fast. Today we rank tenth globally in the proportion of citizens who hold college degrees. While the reason for this is easy to explain, a fix is not. We’re failing to educate our low-income children, who within 15 years, will account for half of all students in America’s schools. What’s most disturbing is the ever widening education gap between low-income children and their wealthier peers. A child born into the lowest economic quintile is four times less likely to graduate from high school and 10 times less likely to graduate from college than a child from the top economic quintile.

The economic impact of this inequity is staggering and costly. Dropouts cost the nation $84 million in lost income tax revenue each year. A growing number of educational and political leaders, thankfully, are aware of the problem and understand what’s at stake. They just can’t agree on what to do about it.

While they wrestle with solutions, College For Every Student (CFES), has been on the frontlines preparing underrepresented and deserving students for campus life and the rigors of higher education. Over the last four years, 95 percent of CFES high school seniors – more than 4,000 students -- have gone on to college.

Nationwide, CFES works with 15,000 students in 130 schools, 90 percent of whom live in poverty. Latinos comprise the fastest growing ethic group of CFES students (30 percent). The core of CFES’s success in preparing and ushering in a new generation of college student is threefold:

First, we create an intensive culture of college. Each of our schools has a college partner and every one of our students – whether a third grader or high school senior -- is regularly exposed to college. These students learn how to move down the path not only to college but also through college.

Second, role models help move students down that path. All of our students have mentors – a college student or community leader, often an older peer. We know the importance of surrounding our kids with people like them that are successful.

Third, whether peer mentoring, tutoring or cleaning up a schoolyard, we ask our students – no matter what age or grade – to step up and help solve the problem. By serving, they learn to lead. We tell our CFES scholars, “You are not tomorrow’s leaders. You are today’s leaders! We need you now.” And they never cease to amaze us.

Eight years ago, one of our students, Angel, had recently been suspended from his lower Manhattan school when he was first introduced to CFES. Three years later Angel entered Plattsburgh State College, where he achieved a 4.0 average and was elected student government president. After recently completing a masters degree, Angel came to us and said, “CFES changed my life. I want to give back.” Angel’s designed a two-week summer leadership course for a dozen CFES scholars in Prague, and he’s raised $10,000 to fund his program.

What propelled Angel and thousands of other underserved students to move from likely drop out to college graduate? An expectation that they can succeed despite the odds. Every student who participates in the CFES program is called a scholar –that fosters a spirit of success and a message of achievement. Likewise our organizational name delivers a message – our kids as well as our families and educators know -- that the expectation is college. We change the discourse from if I go to college to when I go….

Empowering students makes the difference. Four years ago, one CFES high school in Harlem increased its college-going rate by 50 percent when classmates, led by Shameka – a remarkable young woman who grew up in abject poverty – supported one another in the arduous tasks of completing college applications and financial aid forms. Against all odds, Shameka will head to medical school in the fall.

The wolf that resides in too many of the nation’s classrooms will linger there unless we replace it with mentoring, higher education partnerships and programs like CFES that believe and then show that all students can succeed.

Rick Dalton is the president & CEO of College For Every Student, a nonprofit based in Cornwall, Vermont that helps underserved students nationwide gain access to college.