July 02, 2018

When Graduating High School Isn’t A Given

By Terri Sorensen, president of Friends of the Children

Nationwide, 84.1 percent of our youth graduate high school. Obtaining a high school diploma or a GED has consistently shown to lift families and communities out of poverty, giving them access to better jobs, living wages, economic freedom and upward social mobility.

However, there are still significant gaps with low-income students, and this directly impacts the youth we serve. According to the most recent GradNation report by America’s Promise Alliance, 16 states have actually seen the graduation rate gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers increase.

According to the GradNation report, young people who do not graduate high school are more likely to be unemployed, become involved in the criminal justice system, earn less income, have worse health and have a lower life expectancy. They are also less likely to be civically engaged and require more social services.

Graduating high school is the difference between taking a minimum wage job and struggling to get by and mastering a trade or skill that provides a steady income in a field they are passionate about. It’s the difference between becoming a teen parent and obtaining skills and access to resources that set them up for parenting success. It’s the difference between getting involved in the juvenile justice system and being a success story for the communities our youth come from.

For our youth, being able to graduate high school is most certainly not a given. With the help of a consistent, caring adult, they are able to overcome obstacles through grit, perseverance and immeasurable resilience.

The youth we intentionally identify and select for our program face the most significant challenges. They face systemic racism, poverty, mass incarceration, violence, inadequate access to quality educational opportunities, among other larger societal issues.

They are also deeply affected by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Eighty-five percent have experienced three or more ACEs in their lifetime, and more than half have experienced six or more.

Greater than 40 percent of the youth we serve have experienced out-of-home placements, either through the formal foster care system or through kinship care. Entering the foster care system causes tremendous instability in a child’s life, leaving them to focus on everything but school.

When children are faced with coming to school after having endured this kind of trauma, or they don’t have enough food to eat or a consistent place to sleep, we can’t expect them to do well in school. They need extra support from consistent, caring adults to help them walk through the schoolroom door so they can thrive in the classroom.

We are incredibly proud of our youth who graduate. Evaluations on youth who complete the Friends of the Children program show that 83 percent graduate from high school, although 60 percent have parents who did not graduate.

Our program brings about life transformation and has a tremendous economic impact on the communities we serve. The Harvard Business School Association of Oregon return on investment study found that for every $1 invested in Friends of the Children, the community benefits more than $7 in saved social costs. Helping one child saves the community $900,000.

Graduating high school can allow youth to move beyond their circumstances and build a life that they can be proud of. But is also an opportunity to strengthen communities and open pathways to upward social mobility.

We don’t define what success looks like for our youth. Rather, we empower our youth to define what that looks like in their community and give them the academic and social-emotional skills needed to achieve that. Whether they go on to college, learn a trade or enroll in military service, we are able to show them that obtaining a high-school diploma or a GED gives them more choices and the freedom to build a life they can be proud of—on their terms.

Our hope is that by sticking with our youth for 12+ years that they will have more opportunities for upward social mobility and will be able to break the generational cycle of poverty that is so difficult to achieve.

Please join us in celebrating our youth who have graduated from high school and from our program. Make a donation in their honor or share this story with someone who wants to make a difference.