Rachel, Josh, and Louis
I relish advocacy because it brings people together for common purpose. Amid speeches, conferences and legislation, the actual reason for advocacy can grow distant. Then you meet someone — or several people — whose experience reinforces what the advocacy is all about.
Recently, I was confronted by the stark contrast between the relative orderliness of policy discussions and the chaotic lives that three homeless Albuquerque high school students discussed matter-of-factly. The setting was a citywide dropout summit sponsored by the Albuquerque School District, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez, and the America's Promise Alliance.
I had given my usual presentation about the economic and social fallout that results when a student fails to complete high school. My PowerPoint presentation laid out the economic impact to both the student and the community. My objective was to show why everyone in the community, regardless of whether they have children in the public school system, should be directly involved in preventing students from dropping out. I used lots of impressive statistics, colorful slides, and straightforward recommendations. But after all was said, I used relatively impersonal statistics that do not adequately describe very personal hardships.
Then it was time for the summit's high school student panel — three neatly dressed teenage students who looked like typical kids anywhere. Stocky, dark-haired Josh with an infectious grin, opened with "I'm a homeless student." He described a drug-selling father and a mother who subsequently abandoned him and his little brother. Rachel, the slim, dark-haired panel moderator, described how she sought drugs and gang life for the sense of companionship. At one point, she was living in an old car at the edge of her high school parking lot. Louis followed with a similar story. All three of their lives were made of parents failing them and then leaving.
That they were participating in the summit testified they were beating the odds. Leaving her car early every morning to sit in the school gym, Rachel eventually encountered a faculty member who pointed her to assistance. Josh was tempted to drop out, particularly to support his little brother, but ultimately decided against it. They credited Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for providing the assistance they needed to finish school.
Somehow, these students escaped their likely fate: dropping out, drugs, failure and frustration. Today, Josh and Louis have enrolled in postsecondary education, and Rachel has earned numerous scholarships and is excited about being a freshman this fall at the University of New Mexico.
As I listened to Rachel, Josh and Louis, I thought about something I witnessed the previous night while riding to dinner. On a street corner, three police officers were standing over several young people the same age as the teen panelists. The body language of both police and the youths proclaimed that whatever was happening was not good. In this group was another Rachel or Josh or Louis but without the same promising positive outcomes.
Yes, I can put an economic figure on the value of Rachel, Josh and Louis moving from dropping out to where they are headed now. If they graduate from college, their lifetime incomes will likely be at least $1 million more than a dropout's. New Mexico and the nation have likely gained three confirmed taxpayers, not tax consumers. There are three more citizens that won't be occupying the time and resources of the Albuquerque Police Department on Friday nights.
But the real gain is what these three now mean to themselves. They are emerging from a long, dark tunnel. Rachel does peer mentoring, advising other low-income students about how to obtain scholarships. My bet is there will be at least one teacher among the three.
Yes, particular federal and state programs assisted with these positive outcomes. Ultimately, however, it was a committed team of educators who provided intervention and effective teaching that encouraged these students to pull themselves out of a dire situation.
And this is what the next year-and-a-half in Congress offers: a chance to have a positive effect on many more students. Why is it so important that the Congress and the president take action this year to enact real secondary school reform? Just ask these three students about the kind of difference federal policy can make, even when crafted 2,000 miles away. And then remember the desperate hopes of countless Rachels, Joshes and Louises across the country.
Though I saw another example that weekend of what a solid education can mean, I am still presenting the same PowerPoint; we all operate from what we know best. But now I have Rachel, Josh and Louis to exemplify what all those statistics really mean.