Steps to a Successful School Year: High School

This article is part of a four-part series by United Way’s Frank Cardella, a former high school science teacher, education advocate and president of one of the largest educator union affiliates in Virginia. Click here to read other articles in the series.

High School Graduation and College or Career Readiness

Frank Cardella
AFL-CIO Community Services Liaison

Success is often described as climbing a ladder, but I like to think of it as a long staircase with a series of landings along the way. In fact, United Way’s community empowerment model, Steps to Success, embraces this analogy, identifying nine milestones connected to health, income and educational challenges. At each landing, you get a chance to stop and look around at where you are, how far you’ve come, and how far you still have to go. At some levels there are doors, and what lies on the other side of these doors has a lot to do with how far you’ve climbed. The good news is that the higher doors can be opened from both sides, so you can spend some time on that level, then come back to the stairs to continue climbing to the next floor. Unfortunately, if you exit one of the lower doors, you may not be able to open it back up by yourself, and you’ll have to hope that someone comes along to help you gain access again. Graduating from high school represents the first important two-way door: You can enter the world of work with the skills necessary to succeed in the short-term, AND you can go back to climbing for increased long-term growth.

In the U.S., most students graduate from high school at 18 years of age and are considered to have “grown” from children to adults for purposes of assigning legal rights and responsibilities. However, recent advances in scientific imaging technology have shown that brain development does not reach its peak until the mid-20s! This is an important message to get through to our “young people” who are frustrated with the pace of their learning throughout school: Don’t give up, your brain still has a way to go. Most of that remaining brain growth involves refinement of the critical thinking and decision-making skills known as executive function.

Assuming a standard K-12 pathway, graduating from high school takes 13 years to achieve. To most of us, the idea of dropping out of high school with only two or three years to go after putting in a decade of work seems unthinkable; after all, you’re so close, and you’ve already done most of the work. But under-developed executive function makes that argument less persuasive than the more guttural, “School sucks…I suck…When am I ever gonna use this anyway?” reaction experienced by students who recognize that they are behind their peers.

Long-range planning and vision are often overpowered by a strong immediate gratification urge which leads to the conclusion that a minimum wage job today is better than another year or two of struggle and frustration just for “some stupid piece of paper.” But the reality is that students who do not graduate from high school earn almost $300,000 less over the course of their lives with very little, if anything, saved for retirement.

Remember, this door can be opened in both directions: Parents and educators should encourage resilience in our young adults so they are able to fight through the frustration and make it to the landing. Then if they want to take a break from school and work for a while, the door to community colleges or industry-specific training programs will be more accessible.

Developing executive function needs positive role models and a sense of security, but the cumulative lag of learning gaps often makes these hard to attain. One of the United Way partners that helps struggling students change their minds about dropping out is Goodwill of Central Virginia. Through their Education to Occupation program, 71% of participating youth completed summer job training and enrolled in post-secondary education or training, and 84% of youth successfully completing summer job readiness soft skills training and work experience and/or internships. These students were able to persevere to get their diplomas and catch their breath at the landing, allowing them to continue the climb on their own terms.

Books are not the same as experiences.

The challenge for students in high school should be in the application of knowledge, not the acquisition. But often students’ inability to read at grade level overshadows their ability to think. This frequently shows up in standardized testing situations where students’ content knowledge skills appear limited when in fact their real struggles were in understanding the questions. Not all programs are designed to eliminate learning gaps, especially this late in the game; however, there are ways to mitigate the effects of reading and math deficits that have carried over from earlier years. After all, “catching up” doesn’t have to happen the same way that the original learning was structured.

Something else to watch out for: Young adults with learning gaps have been conditioned to see themselves in a certain way, both academically by institutional grouping, and socially by gravitating towards peers who don’t make them feel “different” or “stupid.” Because self-expression and belonging are competing but not exclusive needs, this is a great time to redirect them into activities that allow them to show what they can do rather than focusing on what they can’t. United Way partners with ART 180 to give young people a way to share a piece of themselves directly with the public in their own neighborhoods. Outcomes from the Art Will Make Me Stronger program were incredible: 81% of youth who participated demonstrated increased critical thinking, and a whopping 91% reported feeling a sense of belonging and improved self-esteem. Now they are ready to continue climbing the Steps to Success.

Keep reading this series: 
Frank Cardella is the AFL-CIO Community Services Liaison for United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg. He works to engage and mobilize organized labor partners to strengthen communities, address the underlying causes of societal problems and build capacity for successful United Way campaigns to have lasting impact around the issues of income mobility, education and health. Prior to joining United Way, Frank served the public good for 20 years as a high school science teacher, education advocate and president of one of the largest educator union affiliates in Virginia. Even with all that, it turns out he’s pretty cool.

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