American Graduate Day: Closing gaps in education

Mentoring and educational enrichment make the impossible possible for students, writes Soledad O'Brien.

Story highlights

  • On Saturday, public media stations will mark American Graduate Day with reports on programs that support education
  • Soledad O'Brien urges readers to help students get to and through high school and college
  • She cites research on how mentoring and educational enrichment improve outcomes

Soledad O'Brien is a former CNN anchor and current CEO of Starfish Media Group. O'Brien is host of American Graduate Day, airing Saturday, October 3, on public media. American Graduate Day is part of an initiative to help communities implement solutions to the high school dropout crisis. The program focuses on graduation rates and the role mentoring plays to bridge gaps in communities.

(CNN)My parents were hardworking educators. My dad was an engineering professor for more than 49 years. My mother, born in Cuba, taught high school Spanish and French. My five brothers and sisters and I grew up solidly middle-class, all of us studious and lucky to have parents familiar enough with the educational system (both had multiple degrees) to help us navigate middle school math and college applications in high school. Their love of education, and the strong value they placed on it, made us who we are today. We all have degrees from Harvard University. Everyone but me has a J.D. or an M.D. after his or her name.

When I became a journalist, I began to meet so many young women who didn't have that kind of support in their lives -- like Tierra Moore, a wonderfully gifted young woman from California who was on the verge of dropping out of UCLA. The school had raised the tuition $500, she told me, and even working three jobs (plus taking a full load of courses), she couldn't close the gap. She needed guidance too, a mentor who could help her strategize.
My experience with girls like Tierra is what drives me to join in American Graduate Day: Let's Make it Happen, a public media commitment to community-based solutions to the dropout crisis -- because I want to encourage you to join me in helping young people like Tierra get to and through high school and college.
    On October 3, more than 100 public media stations are going to do national and local reporting on successful programs to discourage dropping out, hold public forums to facilitate conversations between educators or community leaders, and promote educational programs and free resources, like PBS Kids, that create high-level learning materials.
    The goal is to encourage people to become champions of education, to get involved in mentoring and tutoring, and to help organizations achieve their goals through financial support or by donating time and effort.
    I have seen firsthand how these efforts make a difference.
    After meeting Tierra, and other girls like her, my husband and I started a foundation to send girls to and through school. Tierra became one of our first Starfish Foundation scholars. She finished her last two years at UCLA with flying colors. At her commencement, she spoke to classmates about the struggle to graduate, then later enrolled in Berkeley's prestigious Bolt School of Law. Today she's on the cusp of graduating, with a full-time job offer already secured.
    For her and the other girls we sponsor, mentoring and educational enrichment make the impossible possible.
    I have four children and when they fall behind in school, I'm at the schoolhouse door as quickly as possible, strategizing solutions and navigating help.
    The young women in our Starfish Foundation get that help too, but it often doesn't come from their parents, many of whom have challenges of their own. It comes from their mentors, who provide wraparound services, just like a family, pitching in when it's time to buy school supplies, attend an athletic event or talk a student through a tough situation.
    This isn't just anecdotal. An analysis of educational data conducted by the National Education Association showed "clear and consistent" evidence that parent and community involvement in a child's learning led to better educational outcomes, higher attendance and increased enrollment. Seventeen states have even required every public school to enlist parents and community members to help students as a requirement of obtaining special funding.
    The statistics on graduation are hopeful. According to Building a Grad Nation, a report by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, graduation rates for minority students have improved since 2006. Latino students are graduating at rates 15 percentage points higher. Rates for African-Americans have risen 9 percentage points. Even so, those graduations rates (75.2% and 70.7%, respectively) are still lower than the rates for white (86.6%) and Asian (88.7%) students.
    Low-income students also lag behind. According to the report, in 38 states, 85% or more of middle- and high-income students graduate from high school in four years, but only two states see 85% or more of their low-income students graduate on time.
    The report also says the graduation rate for students with disabilities hit 61.9% in 2012-13, an increase of 2.9 percentage points since 2010-11, but still nearly 20 points behind the national average. Estimates show that the graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and students in the general population ranges across states from 3.3 percentage points to 58.8 points.
    American Graduate Day is all about closing those gaps by getting people involved in making sure kids get to and through school, college and beyond. Our broadcast will feature more than 50 nonprofit organizations and people who are making a difference.
    And you can find out how you can join them and become a champion for a student in your community. It doesn't have to be a lot of work, but I know from my experience with Tierra -- who's now a new mom and soon-to-be newly minted lawyer -- that it is a special joy.