On Feb. 25, representatives of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, an initiative that provides structure and discipline to young adults who’ve dropped out of high school, held a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill to discuss the issues plaguing high school students.
“The overriding objective of the program is to leverage the strength of the National Guard and the great need that many of our young people have in this country for a second chance into giving almost 100,000 young people an opportunity to get a second chance,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. “We want to turn [the kids] from a direction of failure and lack of success to a direction of success and productivity.”
The program is a joint operation between federal and state governments along with the Department of Defense. Under the direction of the National Guard in 23 participating states, students receive military-style education and training. After graduating from the program, students may take numerous career paths, including entering the workforce or military and continuing their education.
In addition to this, Gen. Colin Powell announced a joint initiative between President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and himself called “Grad Nation,” which aims to eradicate the nation’s dropout rates. “Now we must turn our attention to solutions,” said Powell in a statement. “This means acting on all the lessons we’ve learned at our summits, and more importantly, making sure all Americans see their stake in this and join us to reach an important goal, which is to see that 90 percent of today’s fourth-graders graduate from high school on time.”
The “Grad Nation” initiative will offer dropout prevention seminars around the country as part of its goal to improve high school graduation rates. One summit took place March 3 in Baltimore and another program is being planned for Washington, D.C.
In cities such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C., programs like “Grad Nation” can have a potent effect on the success of impoverished residents. And while Washington, D.C. reports a 66 percent graduation rate, researchers at America’s Promise [What is America’s Promise] believe that number to be 57.6 percent as of April 2009.
While the District’s graduation figures are disheartening, Baltimore City students face an even grimmer outlook. According to the same report, the Baltimore City Public School System is one of the worst performing public school systems in the country with only 41.5 percent of its students graduating.
But even those dire statistics fail to capture the profound long-term impact of the problem.
According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, if Washington, D.C., reduced the number of 2008 dropouts by one-half, the city would generate $157 million in increased earnings; $142 million in increased spending and investing; $22 million in increased tax revenue and 750 new jobs. If the same thing were to occur in Baltimore, the city would see $77 million in increased earnings; $72 million in increased spending and investing; $12 million in increased tax revenue and 500 new jobs.
There would also be about a 70 percent chance of graduates in both cities to pursue some sort of postsecondary education.
Having an opportunity to graduate is something Air Force Staff Sgt. Eric Capuano is grateful for. In 2003, Capuano joined the National Youth Challenge Program at 17-year-old after having trouble in traditional academic settings. The program turned Capuano’s life around and he now works at the engineering level for the MQ-1 Predator MQ-9 Reaper program.
“I was certainly on a really quick downhill trip in high school,” Capuano said. “I had no confidence academically. I had very little discipline and very little structure.
“I have so much to give back to this program that’s given me so much. I could speak on all day about it.”
One the most staunch advocates for graduating high school was Alvin Burke Jr., also known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar MVP.
Burke, a native of Miami, a city without dropout rates comparable to the District and Baltimore, admittedly associated with the wrong crowd as a teen. His behavior led to a stint in a juvenile detention facility and a nine –and- a-half year prison sentence. Burke believes initiatives like these would’ve been just what he needed as a teen.
“It’s very important to me now to use my influence as a WWE superstar to try to make an impact on at-risk youth and direct them away from [prison],” said Burke. “I want to use my role as a WWE superstar to make sure that at-risk youth know that this program exists, to know the merits of the program and to introduce them to people like Staff Sgt. Capuano.”