Our Voices for Dec. 22, 2012

Teens learning to make difference

Civics and U.S. history students at Mentorship Academy have spent months studying and delivering action plans aimed at solving high school dropout rates, poverty and homelessness in their communities.

They plan to deliver their message of civic and social responsibility to state and national leaders while they attend the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21.

“This is my first time attending an inauguration. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me,” said Isiah Harbor, 15, who added he hopes leaders pay attention to his classmates’ solutions for curbing the state’s dropout percentages.

About 19 students who attend Mentorship Academy’s project-based, technology-focused charter school, used their lessons from U.S. history and civics classes to initiate their action plans.

“They created an educational agenda that they submitted to the president and several state representatives about what they can do, parents and schools to ensure that 84 percent of their classmates graduate on time,” said Shana Watson, teacher and social studies chair for Mentorship Academy. Students also submitted agendas on solving homelessness, poverty and bullying, she said.

According to the Louisiana Department of Education’s cohort dropout rate, a newer formula that provides a comprehensive approach for tracking students who entered the ninth grade four years ago and did not graduate on time, 16.9 percent of high school students dropped out in 2009-2010. The cohort graduation rate in 2009-2010 was 67.2 percent.

Harbor said peer support is one answer to raising graduation percentages.

“If I can talk to other students considering that route and encourage them to find a good group of friends, I tell them, ‘You need a support system,’ ” Harbor said. “People drop out because they feel lonely or because they feel they have no support.”

Civics teacher Brendan O’Kelly, a Teach for America corps member, said his class educated students on civic responsibilities, social and political issues, entrepreneurship and the electoral process.

“They get to see civics in action,” during the inauguration, said O’Kelly. “They are going to see history and that makes it more relevant.”

Students also helped raise the $10,000 to attend the inauguration, O’Kelly said. U.S. History student Destiny Johnson, 17, said November’s election inspired her to study more about Obama’s efforts in the 1980s as a community organizer in a public housing project. Johnson helped organize a toy drive this month.

“I like the fact that Obama’s involved in the community. It motivates me to do community service,” she said.

Harbor and his classmates are running a canned food drive, he said. “I think giving back is important,” he said.

Obama’s re-election was owed in part to the young adult vote, according to the Pew Research Center. Some of Obama’s election campaign initiatives included hosting events on or close to college campuses and engaging college students with volunteer initiatives, according to an analysis of the young vote conducted by CIRCLE at Tufts University.

Mentorship Academy students are playing a crucial role in solving problems affecting their communities by coming up with solutions and developing action plans that include serving the homeless, providing peer motivation to students considering dropping out of school and setting up clothing, food and toy drives.

In that way, Harbor said, students’ voices can definitely make a difference. “How do we matter? By voting when we come of age, volunteering and helping others in need,” Harbor said.

Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance writer for The Advocate. She can be reached at chante writer@hotmail.com