By General Colin Powell
As we approach graduation season I’m reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s quote: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
In all my years of public service, one prevailing lesson has remained: The only true path to success is through the classroom. Our definition of a “classroom” is no longer limited to a simple room with a chalkboard and desks. It’s also a volunteer project at a local park, or an afterschool program in the basement of a faith center. And for me, it was also the battlefield.
Tragically, it is also the streets that have become classrooms for many children, with gang leaders replacing teachers, leaving lessons in character long forgotten.
These differing realities have left us in a precarious place as a nation. We have one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the industrialized world, ranking 18th out of 24 nations. No longer the leader in quality and quantity of high school diplomas, one third of students in the United States leave school before graduating and that number jumps to about 50% for minority students and teenagers in our largest cities.
My wife Alma and I, along with our partners at America’s Promise Alliance, have travelled the country the last two years, bringing state and community leaders together to address the dropout crisis. Through these Dropout Prevention Summits, educators, business and civic leaders, and parents are working alongside young people, putting their collective stake in the ground to end this crisis. They understand that reducing dropout rates isn’t just an educational win, but an economic one.
It’s this premise that the Alliance’s new Grad Nation Campaign is built on. With nearly 100 summits completed and 30,000 people brought together, we believe the nation is ready for action. We know Americans want to do the hard work to save our kids, schools, communities and our country. Through Grad Nation, we will take what we’ve learned at these summits and in communities across the country, and mobilize the entire nation to act, especially in those areas where the problem is the greatest.
Half of the country’s dropouts can be traced to just 2,000 high schools. That’s 12% of all schools. We believe that by focusing attention on the communities surrounding these schools, and by looking closer at known dropout indicators like reading and math scores and absentee and truancy rates, we can have real impact.
It can be overwhelming to think about the work ahead and what this means for the country’s future. But I believe that the everlasting integrity and sense of community that is the bedrock of this nation will help us end this crisis.
It’s this kind of spirit that launched Houston’s Reach out to Dropouts walk in 2004. From a conversation at his kitchen table, former Mayor Bill White decided he was going to go door-to-door and personally bring young people back to school. His effort started with just a few supporters, but has grown to attract more than 15,000 volunteers. During the six years of the program, more than 5,000 young people have returned to school and the program’s success has prompted other cities in Texas to organize their own walks.
Whether you chose to support local initiatives like this or the Women’s Conference’s “We Educate” scholarship program, there is something each of us can do to help realize the vision of Grad Nation and provide our young people with the “true education” Dr. King spoke of nearly 50 years ago.
Gen. Colin Powell, USA (Ret), the 65th Secretary of State, is founding chairman of America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership network dedicated to improving the lives of young people. He is also founder of the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at his alma mater, the City College of New York. To learn more about America’s Promise Alliance and Grad Nation visit: www.americaspromise.org.