“No Child Left Behind” is a joke.

Most of the urban and rural students, primarily from families below the poverty level, are not getting even a rudimentary education. In fact, according to a recent study released by the America’s Promised Alliance (an organization chaired by Colin and Alma Powell), the U.S. has a 30 percent rate of students failing to graduate high school. But the really upsetting data is that in urban settings typically 50 to 70 percent of the students fail to graduate! (see story here) This is more than an embarrassment. This is an epidemic of failure that costs America billions of dollars in lost productivity and high crime rates.

What needs to be done is quite clear. Strong superintendents like Michelle Ree in Washington, D.C., Joel Klein in New York City, and Arne Duncan in Chicago, to name a few, have made significant progress with some combination of the following: take power away from the unions and ineffective school boards; require longer school days and longer school years; eliminate tenure for teachers and offer merit pay to the best teachers; fire those who can’t teach effectively; certify teachers without degrees in education but who demonstrate the ability to teach effectively (which also increases the percentage of minority teachers for schools dominated by minority students); fire principals whose schools are ineffective; fund charter schools; and offer school choice. So the path to success is known. But it is blocked by a recalcitrant bureaucracy and a stubborn teachers union that prefers the status quo. That’s why it takes exceptional leadership to effect real change.

So while there is hope that the efforts of some of these educational reformers and the few politicians who actually seem to care might gradually bring real change to urban education and to U.S. educational policy across the land, what do you, as parents and concerned individuals, do in the meantime? The rest of this article will be devoted to describing some amazing heroics by individuals and organizations that refuse to accept the hopeless fate of these children…our children…for we are all one very large family.

A personal story will provide the lead-in to some compelling examples of communities helping lost youth. Last year my wife and I decided to change our charitable giving philosophy by eliminating nearly all donations to large local and national organizations. Instead we decided to search for grassroots programs where our money and, perhaps, time, could really make a difference. Our efforts to find such programs led us to an exciting foundation, The Lenny Zakim Fund. LZF was created by his family and friends as a deathbed request by this amazing man who did so much for the people of Boston that they named a bridge after him. Itself a grassroots organization, it raises money for programs committed to social change and social justice in the Greater Boston area. Their small but numerous grants have a significant impact on the lives of people who are struggling to find a place for themselves in our society.

Our initial involvement centered on their site visit program which does on-site evaluation of the more than 150 applicants for funding. My wife and I participated in a number of these evaluations and I want to describe a few that are related to turning around the lives of our youth. As you read about these programs and share, hopefully, in my excitement about what they are doing, please try to keep two things in focus: it is amazing what one, or a few, dedicated individuals can accomplish; consider how much you could accomplish with even a fraction of such a commitment and the change you could bring to your community.

The Boston City Singers

“The mission of the Boston City Singers is to provide comprehensive music training to children and youth in Boston’s disadvantaged, inner-city and neighboring communities. We believe that by exploring the world of singing, our members develop stronger leadership and teamwork skills, experience the power of self-esteem and self-discipline, and enjoy the beauty of artistic expression.”

Their programs include entry-level chorus training for over 200 children ages 5-12 from inner-city neighborhoods; a middle school program that focuses on youth with demonstrated skills; a citywide Concert Chorus that provides intensive training for 60 youth, ages 11-18, which has performed all across the country as well as internationally. Their current application was a request to develop a teen mentoring program that would train teens to provide more intensive support to the younger children. This afterschool program is very demanding on the time of the children, the staff, the volunteers, and the families.

Perhaps the most amazing, and important, statistic that underscores the success of this program is that once a child enters chorus training, 80 percent of the children remain in the program until they are too old to continue. It becomes a central part of their lives and the gains are exceptional. They connect the children to tutoring programs; support college goals, including ties to a foundation that offers college scholarships; and assist many of their students, through an intensive program that includes summer tutoring, to get into stronger schools, including some of the best in the city that require tests for entrance. Teachers from the schools that these children are attending when they enter BCS are involved in the program as volunteers and become an important link in the process. Together, staff and volunteers create an individual plan for success for each child.

It works. All the children who remain in the program graduate high school and most not only go on to college but they actually graduate college. (Two-thirds of Boston’s high school students do not graduate, according to a seven-year followup of the class of 2000 as reported in the Boston Globe on 11/17/08).

I watched a rehearsal. The first thing that struck me was how many boys were participating. The second was how quickly they were able to perform a new song that was passed out that day. The third was not just how good they sounded but how focused they were and how happy they were. And these are children who live in neighborhoods where drugs, crime, gangs, and death are a part of their everyday lives. Life-changing? Absolutely!

La Piñata

This program, with a budget about one-tenth the size of BCS, is the quintessential grassroots organization. It is the creation of one woman who has been running the organization for 19 years, Rosalba Solis. The program focuses on Latino families, which, over the years, have become Boston’s largest immigrant population — as well as its poorest. Latino youth have the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates in the city. They are the most at-risk for gang involvement, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression. The mission of the program is to use the performing arts as a means of advancing the self-esteem, self-confidence, leadership and other personal skills necessary for success in a challenging inner-city environment.

La Pinata is currently serving over 100 youth from more than 60 families. The most amazing statistic is that the program has zero dropouts. Nobody leaves! The program does much more than teach dance. It focuses on Latin American music and culture. It gives these youth an identity to be proud of and does it ever pay off. These students improve their school grades, they resist the dangerous temptations in their communities, they all graduate from high school, and many go on to college. In addition, many return to volunteer in the program. Is this a life-changing experience? Absolutely!

Maritime Apprentice Program (MAP)

This program, starting its fourth year, is operated by the Hull Lifesaving Museum which has been providing a range of job- and life-skills programs for 30 years. MAP works with the most challenging teen/young adult population: incarcerated youth who are released from jail and enter the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services program. MAP takes 20 new apprentices into the program each year. Currently all males, this youth represent the highest risk population in the city of Boston: 85 percent minority, 100 percent low income, 80 percent high school dropouts, 60 percent with major skill deficits (as many as 50 percent have 6th grade or lower academic skills), 80 percent live in non-parent, female-headed households, and the other 20 percent are in foster care. Mostly 18 to 20 years old, they are described as “deeply gang-involved high-impact players, the most disruptive force in the city, perhaps the most challenging to serve successfully.”

It is an intensive two-year program, with multiple training sites and involvement with unions and the Coast Guard. In addition to the complex skills and knowledge they must learn in MAP, they are also required to be enrolled in completing high school via a diploma or GED exam. They are taught not just the hard skills of building and repairing boats but the soft skills of attitude, comportment, communication, socialization, behavior on the job and appropriate clothing. Most important, they are taught that they are responsible for their behavior, not their circumstances.

Over 80 percent of the MAP participants have lost family members or friends to handgun violence during the past three years, most suffering multiple losses. Over half of the students have themselves been targets of shootings and knifings, with multiple hospitalizations and one fatality.

Knowing this, I was blown away to walk into a small workshop where a group of students were working on boat repair and boat construction projects. They were sociable and articulate. The students we talked to had hopes about a possible good future yet were very aware that they were always separated by just a thin line from danger when they left at the end of each day. It was hard to picture these same young men in the other worlds in which they have lived or currently live.

So far the program has achieved a 50 percent success rate as measured by program completion and obtaining a job (or, stated another way, not ending up back in jail). This is exceptional when compared to programs working with this same population.

While we were there, a former student who had a job on the waterfront just a few blocks away came to visit. He has a car and a condo. He is a model for the students to follow as are others, some of whom have come back to work in the program. In fact, the goal of MAP is for it to eventually be completely run by former students. That is likely to increase their success rate as new students will be able to identify with their teachers more quickly and build trust faster.

Life-changing? Amazingly so!

Concluding Thoughts

While our public school systems slowly find ways to better serve this 30 percent lost American youth, programs like these are not waiting. They reflect an incredible commitment on the part of adults who care way beyond what most of us ever give to those who have less opportunity. It is a reminder of how much of a difference any of us can make, whether it be direct service or financial support or serving on boards. Hard to imagine anything more important than changing young lives for the better.