David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership
This op-ed was originally featured on America’s Promise Alliance’s GradNation blog.
In an era when many of us tend to be “plugged-in” at all times through social media, smartphones, email or other communication channels, it’s hard to understand that there are still young people out there yearning for connection.
Building on last year’s powerful report, Don’t Call Them Dropouts, America’s Promise Alliance has released Don’t Quit On Me: What Young People Who Left School Say About the Power of Relationships. The new study explores the role adults and peers play in the decision students make to stay, leave or return to high school. The report presents a clear case for the power of positive relationships in promoting equal access to opportunity and keeping youth engaged or helping them reengage academically.
In the report, we hear from a young man called Ted* who grew up without a consistent adult presence in his life and did not complete high school. He shares very matter-of-factly that if he had access to a strong network of outside support and those who took an interest in his aspirations, he would be in a different place in his life. “I felt like there was nobody helping me,” he says. “There was never nobody there to tell me… ‘I think you can do this.’”
Ted articulates well what we all know to be true. Having that someone by your side who inspires you to set goals and provides encouragement can make all the difference. Mentors can serve as an “anchor” to other supportive relationships with family, friends, and teachers, creating a critical link in the necessary web of support working together to boost graduation rates.
Our research shows that young people at-risk of dropping out who had a mentor growing up experienced many positive outcomes related to academics compared to their peers who did not, including being 55 percent more likely to be enrolled in college. And additional mentoring research has shown that students who meet regularly with their mentors in a quality program are 52 percent less likely to skip a day of school and 37 percent less likely to skip a class. Countless students with the best intentions to achieve in school are navigating overwhelming obstacles on the path to graduation. Perhaps they have become a young parent, are experiencing an unstable home life or managing a mental health issue.
Whatever the reason, 485,000 students leave high school each year without receiving a diploma, an astonishing number that translates to severely limited options for their further education, sustainable employment and the health of communities. Don’t Quit On Me survey respondents who returned to school after not graduating on time said overwhelmingly that they came back because “Someone encouraged me to return.”
So what can we do to impact students who are unlikely to graduate? First, we need to turn listening into action.
We’ll never see the potential of young people in our own communities actualized unless we invest in establishing positive relationships with youth. Mentors can be the conduit to other community supports and adults, ensuring that even if one is not available another can step in.
Not all students have equal opportunity to succeed. In choosing to serve as mentors for young people, we have the ability to change the lives of countless youth struggling to graduate high school. It is our responsibility to give young people, like Ted, the support they need to succeed. It is our job to let them know that they have our attention and our duty to let them know that we aren’t going to quit on them.