Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Student Engagement is Key to School Climate

The following blog is an installment in the DCAYA “School Climate” series where we asked experts, community members, and youth to write about variables affecting school climate. Guest blogger Chris Brown is the Executive Director of BUILD and writes about the need to engage students beyond the classroom.  

According to the latest U.S. Department of Education data, Washington DC has the lowest high school graduation rate in the country: only 59% of DC students graduate high school within four years. This is compared to a 79% national average. What's more, the National Center for Education Statistics has shown that only about 50% of DC high school graduates enroll in college, compared to the national average of 62%. This means that only a quarter of people in our Nation's Capital receive a college education which will have detrimental effects on their lifelong earning potential .

For many students, dropping out is the final step in a student’s disengagement from a school community. Often times this is a symptom of schools and their partners not providing engaging and relevant programming or curriculum. It’s no secret that DC schools are overwhelmed and under-resourced so we shouldn't let our teachers and administrators carry the entire burden of helping our students overcome the odds. We have to invest in support networks and extended day learning programs that complement classroom instruction to keep students engaged in their education. We have to expose our students to diverse ways of learning, to keep them invested in building their own futures.

Many of BUILD’s students prove this point, however there is one student in particular whose journey through high school highlights why engaging in meaningful academic experiences can help students in the District overcome the incredible odds stacked up against them.

Several years ago I met a young woman named Natalee whom many described as hot-tempered, angry, and disengaged. Natalee came to BUILD as a ninth grader in a DC public high school. Natalee flourished at BUILD and even became the CEO of her business team "We Go Friendly ," manufacturing reusable and customizable shopping bags. Despite this success, Natalee struggled to keep her cool behaviorally and focus academically, which ultimately led to her expulsion from school. Fortunately, BUILD’s model is a holistic one and we did not give up on Natalee so easily. Our model targets rising 9th graders and serves them through their 12th grade year. We utilize effective strategies like mentoring for disengaged and disadvantaged youth, particularly those in the 9th grade year, as over half of the young people who drop out do so in the 9th grade.

Because of Natalee's 4 years in the BUILD program she did not just become another DC dropout. She was able to re-enroll in school, raise her GPA and eventually become valedictorian of her graduating class. I'm proud to report that our former CEO is now a rising junior, with a scholarship, at Drew University and a true testament to the amazing outcomes that can be achieved when young people are fully supported both in school and out.

Natalee with Executive Director Chris Brown and CEO of Square and Founder of Twitter Jack Dorsey

As she noted recently, "I am grateful for the many lessons that I have learned at BUILD. More importantly, I am thankful for all the support I have received over 4 years. The interactions that I've had with BUILD staff members and mentors have been invaluable. BUILD has been there for many important moments of my life and held my hand through many tough times. As happy as I was to leave DC for college, a part of me was nervous and sad. I just couldn't picture life without BUILD. But - I really never left. Every time I come home from school I find my way back to the Incubator and I'm welcomed by those same welcoming smiles."

Chris Brown is the Executive Director at BUILD Metro DC. BUILD's mission is to use entrepreneurship to excite and propel disengaged, low-income students through high school to college success. In school year 2012-2013, 100% of BUILD seniors - our second graduating cohort - were accepted to at least one college or university.

Watch video from the BUILD Gala HERE. 

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