GradNation Summit 2014
Conference Focuses on Ways to Boost Springfield’s Graduation Rate
By KATHLEEN MITCHELLMany businesses donate to local nonprofit organizations and do their best to support the community. But Michael Smith says they inadvertently fail to recognize the role they can play in a critical area of need.
“Businesses often think that lowering the high-school dropout rate is a job for schools, nonprofit organizations, and the government. But they need to pay attention to what is happening if they expect the country to have an educated workforce,” said the Springfield native during a keynote speech at the GradNation Summit 2014 luncheon held last month at Springfield College for community and business leaders. “They may be writing checks or hosting grant competitions, but it is not enough. They need to establish apprenticeship programs, bring high-school students into their companies, and send their employees into the schools.”
Smith was recently appointed a special assistant to President Obama and is senior director of Cabinet Affairs for the presidential My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which addresses opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color that prevent them from reaching their full potential.
He traveled to the Bay State from Washington, D.C. to attend the day-long GradNation event, at which summit leaders shared best practices aimed at keeping inner-city students interested in their own education, with a focus on the relationship between success in middle school and the path to graduation.
Springfield was one of 100 cities across the nation selected by America’s Promise Alliance to hold a GradNation conference, with the goal of boosting the high-school graduation rate to 90% by 2020. And the United Way of Pioneer Valley convened the event as part of its Stay in School initiative launched last year in partnership with Springfield’s public schools.
“Middle school is a time when kids often get off track; adolescence can be really challenging, and we can’t wait until high school to make sure students are achieving at grade level. We need to get them in the pipeline early,” Smith said, adding that an overwhelming number of dropouts are “kids of color.”
He told BusinessWest that he grew up in the Hill McKnight area of Springfield. “It was a rough neighborhood with drugs, crime, violence … you name it,” he said. “I had many opportunities to fall off the path, but thanks to my parents, my grandmother, and the Boys & Girls Club, which provided me with opportunities to volunteer as well as my first job, I became a success.
“But I think about the kids I went there with who are not standing in a similar position today,” he went on. “A lot of them dropped out of school or had children early, and way too many dreams were deferred.”
However, there are strategies that can make a difference, and Smith said peer mentoring is an effective tool in middle school. But he quickly dispelled the belief that focusing solely on improving academics is the most important strategy in reducing the dropout rate.
“It takes far more than academics for a child to be successful,” he said, citing the Harlem Children’s Zone as a program that works. “They use innovative educational programs to help children, but they feed them breakfast first. You have to look at all of the roadblocks, and we need to disrupt the way we have been doing things because it is not working.
“Good enough is not good enough; we invest far too much money in things that don’t bear fruit, and governments and nonprofits can’t save children,” he went on, adding that, while nonprofits spend $300 billion each year, the dropout rate remains high.
“So, it’s clear that we need to form new partnerships, invest in innovation, and set the same goals if we want to attain a 90% graduation rate,” he told the audience.
Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno told those assembled that a number of success stories have come out of Springfield, adding quickly that considerable work remains.
“We need to push the needle if we are going to knock down poverty. The number-one priority is education, followed by jobs, and you get jobs through education,” he said, acknowledging that middle school is a difficult time for young people.
“If we are going to make any real improvements in the dropout rate, the entire community needs to be behind it,” the mayor went on. “We have a moral imperative to improve urban schools, but it will require bold and difficult measures to get dramatic outcomes.”
Springfield College President Mary Beth Cooper was among a bevy of speakers who outlined their efforts to help Springfield schools, and said the college has tutors in preschools who focus on early literacy skills of at-risk children.
“Our Springfield College School Turnaround Initiative also places 48 Americorps members in Level 4 schools. In 2013-14, they implemented targeted interventions to improve attendance, academic achievement, and the behavioral-social-emotional health of the students,” she said, adding that, as a result, 55% showed an increase in academic engagement.
Dora Robinson, president and CEO of United Way of Pioneer Valley, stressed the fact that GradNation was not simply an event. “It’s a call to action, and we really need a lot of support,” she said. “If we invest time and effort on the front end, more young people will graduate and move into the workforce. We have made some inroads in moving the needle, but until we are willing to stand up and support young people, we shouldn’t point fingers.”
In addition to speakers, the event included both youth and community panels, and the participants took note of what it will take to formulate an action plan to inspire middle-school students to do well in class. Measures that were outlined include engaging parents and young people, establishing safe places for students to go, providing them with individual mentors and social and emotional supports, and putting early-warning response systems in place that will alert educators when a student is at risk of dropping out.
“If anyone can do this, Springfield can,” Smith said. “But in order to reach a 90% graduation rate, we have to interrupt the status quo. People keep doing the same things over and over, while millions of kids fall through the cracks. Everyone needs to lock their arms together with a common goal.”
Although 80% of students across the nation graduate from high school today, jut over half (54.9% last year) of Springfield high-school students earn their diploma.
Progress has been made, but Henry Thomas III, president of the Urban League, said the future of the region and the local economy depends on students not only graduating, but obtaining the credentials they need to get a job after high school. “The whole community needs to put education front and center.”
The information gleaned from the GradNation Summit will be distilled into a three-year community action plan to support Springfield’s middle-school students that will be submitted to America’s Promise Alliance by early January.
“This summit is the beginning, but nothing we do in school matters if a child is not eating, or drugs are being sold in violence outside their windows,” Smith said, as he spoke about a program in Washington, D.C. that matches children with paid mentors who do everything from getting them help for depression to providing assistance to parents looking for a job.
“But we also need investments, mentors, and slots for apprenticeships and internships so young people can gain practical experience,” he went on. “We need to come together to figure out our workforce needs in the next few years and make sure we are investing time and money to fill these jobs instead of having to look elsewhere.”