"It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared;" these are the words of the late Whitney Young, Jr. who served as President of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971.
But what happens when someone sees opportunity, desires to prepare for it, but access to the required preparatory tools is only partially available, is insufficiently resourced, thus making it daunting and discouraging to attempt to attain the competencies and skillsets required to fully harness these opportunities.
Sadly, far too many of the students who find their way to the Urban League Academy Schools are being treated as Generation “Un”; unable to thrive in traditional educational settings, thus ending up in sparsely funded alternative learning centers in absence of the remediation, psychological, mental and family support services needed to respond to the risk factors that dominate their lives; unable to finish high school as their foundational basic skills were never developed throughout the years, ultimately becoming discouraged and quitting school-derailed by the weight of hopelessness; now unable to qualify for a job on a career pathway because of the lack of both a high school diploma and an industry credential; unable to envision, enroll or persist in a postsecondary institution because the system has not taught them to focus on asset-building and personal strength recognition; unable to find a way to pay for higher learning because they do not fully understand how to navigate the system; finally unable to discover opportunities that over a lifetime support a satisfactory quality of life, one that supports the economic vibrancy and economic growth of the community
These youth are our next workforce, but are we earnestly responding to their pleas for help? This Generation “Un” must become a genuine concern for us all. We must commit to executing actionable solutions that are adequately funded so that these young adults can overcome the barriers that make it ever so challenging to harness their personal potential. This is both a local and national economic development issue that is being left unchecked, and is swelling into a quiet storm with certain catastrophic impacts.
The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that high school dropouts from the Class of 2006-07 will cost the U.S. more than $329 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over their lifetimes. Human development experts report that those who drop out are more likely to be incarcerated, rely on public programs and social services, and go without health insurance than those who graduate from high school. The question we must ask ourselves is do we invest in the garden of futures proactively, or are we going to invest reactively when weeds overtake the garden, choking the vitality out of our community because of crime, poverty and the lack of talented human capital critical for business.
Rebuilding the Pipeline: Equipping Every Student Learner To Succeed In An Evolving Global World
Under Minnesota Law, a student eligible for participation in the graduation incentives program at an alternative learning center must meet at least two of the following criteria:
(1) performs substantially below the performance level for pupils of the same age in a locally determined achievement test;
(2) is behind in satisfactorily completing coursework or obtaining credits for graduation;
(3) is pregnant or is a parent;
(4) has been assessed as chemically dependent;
(5) has been excluded or expelled
6) has been referred by a school district for enrollment
(7) is a victim of physical or sexual abuse;
(8) has experienced mental health problems;
(9)has experienced homelessness within six months before requesting a transfer;
(10) speaks English as a second language or has limited English proficiency; or
(11) has withdrawn from school or has been chronically truant; or
(12) is being treated in a hospital for a life threatening illness or is the sibling of an
eligible pupil who is being currently treated.
Daily, teaching staff at the UL Academy High School labor in a setting where ten of these twelve criteria are evident in our student learners. With only $6000 of funding per student (about half of what is invested in student learners without these range of challenges), the dedication of these teachers and their choice to go the extra mile has meant that learning is taking place and futures are being constructed for those silently being labeled Generation Un.
Take Female Student X –Class of 2012. Her mother died when she was only 9. She bounced around from school to school, and amongst a host of family members. Extremely smart, but drowning in pain and mourning, she began to act out - exhibiting a range of inappropriate behaviors. No one to talk to, her behavior eventually got her expelled from her school, and she ended up at UL Academy High. Through intentional mentoring and academic support, this student is now back on track, focused on her future and determined to achieve it. Now she is dually enrolled in high school and college, and is quick to admit that MUL staff encouragement, school expectations that college and her career goals are achievable, and strengthened personal effectiveness skill sets have helped her regain the motivation to apply herself academically. She is now confident that personal success is within her grasp.
Take Eight Male Students. This group of young men thought that sagging pants, skipping school and sassing teachers made you cool. Not always experiencing success, attitudes of hopelessness and limited possibility had seeped in. They were positioned for the pipeline to prison. With mentoring by male school staff and caring volunteers, and by using the sport of basketball for weekly teachable moments about learning and life, these eight young men are now proud to share that they are excelling in the classroom. They are eager to visit college campuses, explore career pathways, and decide which college to attend. Through cooperative learning, persistence and teaming, they won the 2012 Winter Minnesota Youth Athletic Services Basketball League title.
In spite of insufficient resources but through intentional focus, Urban League students are achieving learning gains and shifting out of the ranks of Generation “Un.” How is this happening?
We have found as a result of standardized testing, that if our school can actively engage a student learner for at least three months, demonstrable academic gains are noted. This means through our wraparound approach which effectively addresses academic learning needs and the quality of life challenges which led the student to our doors in the first place, the MUL Academy Schools educational environment can achieve results. Our engaging supportive educational environment enables our students to connect in the classroom, as well as better understand the relevance of education to their chosen career pathway. MUL is striving to achieve these gains with every student; but $6,000 per pupil is sparse funding. With double that amount we could do more, we could effectively retain more of the thousands of out-of-school youth who daily wander the streets, spend the day flicking the remote, or give in to the lure of the streets.
A $12,000 per student investment is viewed as too costly by some, but is minimal compared to the social return on investment that will be derived from supporting Generation Un. An article titled The Harsh Realities of Juvenile Detention notes that, “The U.S. locks up children at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations. The over 60,000 average daily juvenile lockups, a figure estimated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), are also disproportionately young people of color. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention.”
I can only imagine what our schools could accomplish if finances were not the issue. We could further expand organizational capacity and innovative future visioning could be unleashed full force. I see the ‘Help Wanted’ sign coming down and the educational pipeline beginning to flow freely into the sea of opportunity. The staff of the Minneapolis Urban League Academy schools is committed to transforming the students we serve from Generation Un-Able to Generation Un-Stoppable. Join us in the educational huddle!