If there is any issue that stumps liberals and conservatives alike, it is what to do about the crisis in public education in our high schools, especially in urban neighborhoods. If the now-famous campaign theme “It’s the economy, stupid” worked in 1992, then in 2016, the related slogan could be “it’s about education, stupid.”
Data show a correlation between graduation rates in high schools and colleges, and job and economic opportunities. For example, Labor Department data show the unemployment rate drops as education level increases, starting with 12.4 percent with less than a high school diploma, 8.3 percent among those with high school degrees and 4.5 percent for those with a college degree. Regarding educational achievement and future wages, the correlation is equally clear: A typical worker with at least a four-year college degree earns about $50,000/year, compared with the median income of $30,000/year among those with a two-year degree and about $18,500/year for those with no more than a high school diploma.
The centerpiece of College Bound is its “Academic Mentoring Program,” which matches each student in the eighth through 12th grades with a college-educated professional, who becomes their academic mentor, or “partner,” and engages one-on-one with them for the duration of the program. Students in the program must meet with their partner once a week for two hours at one of six local, community-based sites. Partners are also required to spend personal time during the month to develop a relationship with the student.
The program began in 1991 with 12 students and 15 volunteers at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, with the goal of making college a reality for underserved eighth- through 12th-grade students. Today, some 23 years later, led by its inspirational executive director Kenneth Ward, who is a former D.C. school teacher and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, College Bound offers an array of programs focusing on college admission preparation to more than 500 D.C. high school students — 95 percent of whom are African-Americans. Its total budget is just slightly over $600,000 — all private, no government, funds, drawn from individual and business community and nonprofit contributions in D.C.
The challenge of helping inner-city kids graduate high school, much less get admitted to a quality college and have a good chance of graduating, can seem daunting. About 69 percent of all students in the United States graduate from high school with a regular diploma in four years, but in the District, this number drops to 49 percent. In Wards 7 and 8, among the city’s poorest neighborhoods, with the lowest graduation rates, only one-third of students graduate from high school and 1 in 20 receive a college degree.
Yet in the last four years, 100 percent of all seniors who participated in the College Bound program graduate from high school, and 100 percent are accepted into the college or university of their choice. Among the colleges that this year’s senior class was accepted at were Cornell, Drexel, Penn State, Rutgers, Simpson, St. John’s, The George Washington University, the University of Maryland and the University of Pennsylvania.
Two years ago College Bound launched its Virtual Mentoring Program to support its alumni in college to degree completion. College Bound has shown impressive results in students continuing their education once they get to college. In the second year of the launch, 87 percent of its first-year students continued into their second year in college. This is significantly higher than the national average of less than 70 percent making it into the second year. College Bound’s second- and third-year return rates are an incredible 100 percent.
I know that it’s rare for Washington to turn to a simple approach, and I realize that these are just a handful of students out of all of D.C.’s public schools who are being helped. But the College Bound program is worth close study. There’s not much riding on addressing the crisis in public education today — just the future of our country.
Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and executive vice president of the strategic communications firm Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.