News about the present and future of American K-12 education continues to be discouraging.
But a series of effective out-of-school programs is creating a glimmer of hope. If we focus on these, thousands of children can be salvaged from a broken system.
First the bad news (culled from three recent reports).
The U.S. Department of Education tells us that only 26 percent of the nation's high school seniors are proficient or better in math and only 38 percent in reading. Less than 40 percent are academically prepared for college.
Teachers confirm the magnitude of the problems. The annual Education Next poll reports that 73 percent of teachers give our public schools a rating of C or less. Only 47 percent support the Common Core, the newest major school reform effort.
These types of narratives are not lost on the public. Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup's annual poll tells us that 80 percent of the American public give our schools a rating of C or less and only 33 percent support the Common Core.
Are these numbers surprising?
No. Many reports over many years have told us that 1) decades of school reform have had limited success, 2) change in our schools is agonizingly slow and 3) the prospect of widely effective schools is not on the near horizon.
Now the good news.
In response to the slow rate of progress, private non-profits have stepped in to fill the breach. There is a growing national movement to provide students with scholarships and out-of-school academics, college guidance and placement, and life skills. In the last five years, the National Partnership for Educational Access (an association of private non-profit education organizations that provide out of school services to more than 200,000 underrepresented students) has seen a jump in membership of almost 200 percent.
One of the members is New Jersey SEEDS, a private non-profit that works with high need (average family income of approximately $36,000) elementary, middle and high school students from struggling schools.
Here are stories of two of the more than 2,000 young people they have served.
Odette Rodrigues hails from Newark, N.J., a city with a 2012 median income of $31,293 and where only 12 percent of the adult population has a bachelor's degree or higher. In seventh grade, she was accepted into a SEEDS program that prepares low-income students for success and entrance into elite private high schools. After 14 months of Saturday classes and two intensive summer programs, she was successfully placed (with substantial financial aid). In 2009, she graduated from Harvard and currently works in the financial sector.
Uchenna Eze hails from Orange, N.J., a city with a 2012 median family income of $40,585 and where 17 percent of the adult population has a bachelor's degree or higher. In the 10th grade, he entered a SEEDS program that offered Saturday and summer academic enrichment programs and guidance services for public high school students. He is currently a sophomore in good standing at the University of Southern California, where he has a major in philosophy (with a concentration in politics and law) and a minor in economics.
It is time to be honest with ourselves and with others about the state of American education: Our schools are failing many current students and are unlikely to make substantial improvements any time soon. Predictions for the Common Core are not heartening. At best, it will take years of tinkering to fully implement and institutionalize any progress.
In the interim, we must support what we know works.
For many, this means creating paths around and under the public school system. Programs like New Jersey SEEDS must be expanded: more money, more research and more exposure.
If we want to give students the skills to succeed in education and life, for the foreseeable future, these kinds of programs are their only paths to success.
Gene A. Budig, an Isle of Palms resident, is past president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas, and of Major League Baseball's American League.