Making More of the Future than a Hard Life Inherited

Contributed by J. Michael Durnil, Ph.D., President and CEO, Simon Youth Foundation

The calendar tells me it’s “back to
school” time, but I am still thinking about an experience I had during this past
spring’s graduation season. I have the privilege to represent SYF at Simon
Youth Academy graduations, and my very favorite part of this experience is standing
in the receiving line of well-wishers and shaking the hands of graduates as they
cross the stage to receive their diplomas.

2014  Graduates from Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall
As part of my graduation remarks, I
always make it a point to tell the students and assembled audiences that every
member of the SYF team is humbled by the fact that we played some small part in
helping change a student’s life.  This
year, as a young man crossed the stage, he extended the duration of the hand
shake just a little longer than most, looked me in the eye, and said, “Sir, SYF
didn’t change my life. It saved my life.”

I could stop there, but his declaration
is the beginning of my story.

An ongoing topic of conversation in the
office, especially as we try to grow the awareness of the work of the Simon
Youth Foundation, is how great it would be if editorial boards at major
newspapers (or even smaller papers) could get as excited as we do about the
stories of our students, teachers, partner schools, and Simon Mall
leaders who are working together to create real change. Sounds simple. But the
concept is surprisingly complex. It’s difficult to explain, and even more
difficult for some to comprehend unless they have personally experienced the
challenges our students, teachers and even community advocates face.

Our goal at SYF is to make sure we
provide as many opportunities as we can for our Academies, partner school
districts and communities in an effort to minimize the effects of disadvantages.
In short, taking students from being “at-risk” to what we like to call
“at-promise.”

The demographics and statistics about
the students we have the great fortune to work with can be staggering. We are
extraordinarily proud of our 90% graduation rate, especially when you couple it
with the understanding that 35% of our students are the first ones in their
family to receive a high school diploma. And to be clear, that 90% graduation
rate isn’t some 10% ahead of the 2012 National Center for Education Statistics reported
percentage of 80%. The SYF delta of change is a full 90%; none of the students
who are served by our partner schools through the Simon Youth Academies were
destined to graduate high school.

In SYF-ese, we want them to “Start
here. Go anywhere.”

As we start back to school, gather our
supplies, and hope to harness the excitement of the new year and opportunities
ahead, let’s work together to ignite hope in our students – hope that their
future isn’t just a hard life inherited;
but through the empathy of our stakeholders, that their future is a new legacy
for their family and community.

Here’s to a great school year.

I’m already looking forward to
graduation day, when I will once again have the privilege of shaking hands with
more than a thousand hard-working students.

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