Unclaimed, ungraduated.

My son Dan is right.  Ruin porn is dead.  What caught the fancy of photogs, and journalists in recent years in Detroit has been the breathtaking sights of decadence and decay that have gripped the city. Who hasn’t seen pictures of the famed, iconic train station, or the majestic Michigan Theatre, now a parking garage for the overflow at Comerica Park. Capturing the startling images of ruin is now de riguer.  Passe.

The moment for ruin porn has passed.  Now we have to sift through the wreckage.  In it, we find a story not about Detroit, but about our times.  Detroit is simply a cautionary tale, one that says, it happened here. It’s happening still.  Oh and by the way, if we don’t figure out how to fix this epidemic, it’s coming to your town next.

I ended up in the D all because of Vicki.  Vicki was my grandmother.

In 1912, she left Poland with her mother to catch up with her dad in rural Ohio where he had taken a job as a coal miner in the small town of Blaine Ohio.  My great grandfather had found coal mining tough in Poland, and felt he’d do better in America.  So after coming to this country, for 3 years he sent back a few dollars at a time until my grandmother and great grandmother could join him.

By the 1920’s, Vicki had seen enough in Blaine to last a lifetime.  Small company shacks, long bread lines for the unemployed, and men who still worked returning home each night blackened from head to toe with grimy coal dust.  In 1926, Vicki joined my grandfather John, who also saw no future in mining, and together they pointed their newly purchased model A Ford toward Detroit as if toward Mecca.  The automotive industry signaled the emergence of a new religion, one heightened by an ambitious claim.  It was the religion of manufacturing might and mobility.  Detroit was putting the world on wheels and on the move.  If you had a strong back, and were ready to work hard, there was a bright future for you.

With no more than a 6th grade education, Vicki staked a claim in the American Dream, and soon became part of the thriving middle class in Detroit.  A small bungalow in a neat brick neighborhood, a new car in the driveway, and two young sons.  My grandparents had it all. My family has been in the Detroit area ever since.

But the future created in Detroit was not sustainable.  Over time, jobs left the city and decay set in.  Crime and unemployment made a strong claim.  By 2000, Detroit had lost another quarter of a million people.  A city that once boasted America’s fastest growing community was now shrinking just as quickly.

Looking at Detroit now, the blight is inescapable.  As Brother Jerry, who runs the Capuchin Soup Kitchen said, “When I first got here, I couldn’t fathom the scale of the need, the sheer number of people lost and without hope.”

What’s different?

We have been looking at the buildings, rather than the blight.  The real blemish is on the faces of those who remain in this city and others like it.  They are part of this country’s great unclaimed now.  Without an education, they no longer have any real claim to a life-sustaining, family supporting job or career. As such, without some assistance, they risk becoming part of a larger, disenfranchised group of people with little hope or promise for the future.

In the arena of education, one of the biggest blights is the number of people we are “ungraduating.” With our top urban school districts across the country failing to graduate the majority of those entering their doors, the drop-out situation has become an epidemic. Upwards of 45 million adults in the US now are lacking a basic high school diploma. With all that we read about and hear about the jobs and industries of the future, how is it possible for folks without an education to survive, much less thrive, in a hyper-connected, competitiive global employment landscape?

What we need is an effective educational intervention. Interestingly, Dr. Howard Liebman, an educational innovator with advanced degrees in educational trauma, turned his attention in 2011 to developing a program for those who left the educational system without their diploma.  The answers he derived were simple, but don’t mistake simple for easy. The answer was marrying a career-focused education with high school tailored to an adult learning model modified and flexible for their varied schedules.

When A NATION AT RISK was published in 1981, it only told a portion of the story.  It said that we were on a track to reduced economic prosperity if we didn’t get our education system back on track.  But since that time, the situation has actually become worse.  In the time it took you to read this far, 5 people have been added to the ranks of the unclaimed, ungraduated.

So we’ve joined forces with Howard, and together we’re committing a lot of forces to do better.  Not alone, but with the help of many.  Not for one, but for many, one at a time.

We can reach those who are gated from their claim to the American Dream by helping to lift them up with an accredited, career focused high school diploma.  Instead of identifying the reasons why the education system, and the social welfare system and the political system and the community social network have all failed them, we can offer them a chance to re-claim their stake in the American Dream.

Out of curiosity, have you met anyone like this?  Do you know someone who is over 18 and doesn’t have a high school diploma?  If you have, you can probably validate something we discovered already about them.  They are not without skills or talent, or uneducable, or without self-worth, or hopes/dreams and ambitions for something better.  They simply ran into a gate.  In some cases, the gate was a 5 digit number– their zip code.  If they grew up in one of the unfortunate zip codes, their number had already been punched.  The odds makers could have told them as much before they entered the 9th grade.  In some of our largest American cities, less than half of 9th graders make it out of high school with a diploma.

In Detroit, the numbers are stark and punishing.  Almost 4/10 ninth graders fail to graduate.  However, 9/10 students who are incarcerated and in prison are actually getting a high school diploma.  This is unfathomable, but true.  It also means that if you live in my zip code here in Detroit, and you are 14-17 years of age and male, the odds are rough.  You are 2 times more likely to graduate from high school if you become a felon first.

That’s why our claim is a simple one:  WE CAN DO BETTER.  Based on these statistics, we must do better.

Now if you don’t know someone that is in this situation, that’s okay.  Because we are going to introduce you to some of these folks.  Don’t be afraid.  They are not as menacing as you might imagine.  Many have been led to believe that high school drop outs are gang bangers, small time drug lords and unwed mothers with multiple children.

The face of the unclaimed, ungraduated, like Detroit, and throughout our country is far more diverse.  We will show you.  In the weeks ahead we will be sharing some of these folks’ stories with you.  They are amazing.  People who have in many cases through no fault of their own, simply slipped through the cracks in our educational sidewalk.

One by one we are finding them, and working with them to get their high school diploma.  The most exciting part of their work with us?  In most cases, it’s only the beginning for them.  What we are finding from our graduates is that this is simply the start of a new life for them.  Armed with a diploma, and renewed self-confidence, they are restaking their claim on the American Dream.  They are developing big plans for themselves that they didn’t think were possible a short time ago.

Prepare to be amazed.  In a short 18 months, we’ve enrolled over 3,000 students.  We recently announced our 600th graduate.  100% of our students entered our program as high school dropouts.  100% of those who graduate leave with a bright future of their own making.  We are here to help along the way.  But they are the ones doing the heavy lifting. That’s how they want it.

Along the way, they will lift your spirit as they have ours.  Come back to meet some of them.  You’ll be blown away!

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