We have always heard that the path to success starts with education. And yet, African-American teens across the country seem to be diverting off course. A new survey released this week by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Taco Bell Foundation reveals that every 26 seconds a teen drops out of high school. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is offering $44 billion in economic stimulus money to save the nation’s failing schools, but until that money trickles down, former U.S. Ambassador and Mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young believes there is work to be done now to save these kids. He spoke to ESSENCE.com about what he believes must be done to motivate kids to stay in school.

Our education never depended on good schools but on people realizing that whatever kind of schools they had they had to find a way to discipline themselves. As a slave Frederick Douglass had to teach himself how to read and Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t go to the best grade school. When I went to elementary school, there were about 60 kids in my class. I was never particularly a good student but I had a hunger for knowledge. 

Our school systems have to realize that everybody doesn’t learn the same way and no one learns without some emotional support. Most of the kids who drop out are branded as difficult students or not too bright by the time they get to third grade. When Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he figured that out.They decided that if you didn’t help them to catch up by sixth grade, they would drop out as soon as they turned 16 years old. So they concentrated all their efforts there and motivated sixth-grade teachers to understand that they were the key to keep students from dropping out.

There are all types of solutions, like increasing teacher’s pay and setting up different kinds of classrooms but ultimately we can’t wait until we get all of that in place. We have to respect every student as a child of God who is capable of learning and figure out how to teach him or her and not just write them off early. Secondly, students have to respect teachers. Parents have to respect teachers. We need to build up the impact and importance of the teaching profession. Most of my teachers wanted to send me to the principal’s office. But my fourth-grade teacher once put her arms around me and said, “You sure write well.”  And I’ve had good penmanship until this day. She was the only one who ever said anything nice to me. That’s the kind of motivation that students need.

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I’ve been dyslexic and had Attention Deficit Disorder at some time in my life. I still read with a highlighter but I’ve always loved to read. My teachers would tell me I had to read but never explained why it was important. The big problem with dropouts right now is the emphasis on tests because it doesn’t give you any love of learning. You’re in school to pass a test to get to the next level. But as soon as you finish the test, you forget it all. I think you should teach people and I don’t see why it has to be measured. In the mostly White schools, they understand that students learn in different ways. Our school systems have a way of labeling people.

Everybody has a vested interest in stopping this crisis but it starts with the students. Students can save each other. They can see the kids who are not coming to school or don’t feel like they belong. I also say to almost everybody I know that if you speak to the teacher every day when you walk in the classroom, if you’re going to make a C, you’ll get a B. If you’re going to make a B, you’ll get an A. So much of grading is subjective. If you’re polite and show you’re teacher respect, your teacher will be apt to take a little extra time with you.