Last year during mentoring, one of my seventh graders confided that she spent every evening—from the time she got home from school until she went to bed—taking care of her four younger siblings. She explained how this meant that she often didn’t have time to even look at her homework, and she was usually too tired during the day to stay awake during class. Her mom worked two jobs and didn’t get home until after midnight, so it was up to my seventh grader to babysit, make dinner, do the chores, bathe her siblings, and get everyone into bed.
When I asked her about school, she shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m too tired… But I don’t really care—it’s not like I even like any of my teachers anyways.”
The statistics clearly show that my seventh grader is just one of many students not properly served by our current system. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 4.1% of all high school students dropped out of school between October 2008 and October 2009 (NCES, p. 8). While this number has lowered significantly since the 1970’s and 1980’s, 4.1% per year could easily turn into 16.4% total by the time an incoming freshman class is supposed to graduate.
Furthermore, the distinction between high school completion rates across race and socioeconomic status are staggering. Over 9.3% of black young adults (aged 16-24) have dropped out, and that number skyrockets to 17.6% for Latinos (NCES, p. 9). Additionally, students from low income homes were five times more likely to drop out than students from middle or high income families (NCES, p. 6).
My 7th grader is easily on track to become yet another addition to that statistic. In the particular school I mentored for, Buford Middle School, 56% of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch (over 48% eligible for free lunch alone). Already—in a school that serves only 7th and 8th graders—the dropout rate was 4.1%.
Having spent the past couple years working with Buford Middle’s at-risk seventh grade girls, I can understand that it’s easy for an educator to begin feeling helpless—especially as one continues to witness greater levels of student potential intermingled with greater levels of adversity. However, it is this potential, above all else, that demonstrates why it is so critical for us to keep fighting.
Whether weighing different types of responses to bullying, seeking out additional homework help, or explaining the subtle intricacies between “going with” and “talking to” someone, my girls have already navigated difficult circumstances, adverse social cues, and responsibility beyond what any 12-year-old should have on her shoulders.
The part of mentoring that impacted me the most was not the bonding and connections formed, nor the joy of facilitating young girls’ development into young women (although both of those were equally powerful experiences). Instead, it was that—each day—I witnessed these students weigh their options between giving up or moving forward. For each day that they chose to move forward, I felt that much more committed to my own promise to be there with them every step of the way. For the more difficult days where they wanted to call it quits, their struggle provided me strength to keep pushing and served as a reminder of why that promise is—and will remain—so important.
There are so many different ways to make a positive impact, and—if you can find a few hours per month to spare—I would highly encourage you to get involved. While we may not be able to overcome all of the difficulties our students are facing, the value of having someone to motivate them to stay in school, work through their challenges, and find value in themselves and in others really can make the difference in determining a child’s outcome.
That alone is worth the fight.