As pointed out on these pages out last week, the failures of American public education lie not with so-called unmotivated students, but with a system in which adults do not hold themselves or the kids in their care to high expectations. This culture of mediocrity, which starts with low-quality teachers coming into the classroom ends with young men and women who lack the education needed to succeed in an increasingly global economy. And it is up to the adults to help kids get ready to succeed by providing high-quality instruction and fostering a culture of genius in which kids are taught by adults to get ready for college and life.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, former former social worker-turned-Dallas teacher Bill Betzen, whose work with middle school students has been chronicled on these pages, offers more insight on what can be done to get kids on the path to productive adulthood.

Every school system with a graduation rate below 80 percent needs a revolution. This means the public school systems attended by the majority of American children. The national graduation rate is 69 percent. Urban graduation rates are often below 50percent. The Dallas Independent School District will achieve a 50percent graduation rate (percentage of full 9th grade enrollment represented in the number of diplomas given out 4 years later) for the first time in over 20 years with the Class of 2011.

Dallas has made tremendous progress over the past 5 years! Once the 2011 numbers are in they may show a growth of over 10 percentage points in this huge urban district just since the Class of 2007 when the graduation rate fell to 40.5 percent Much more progress is mandatory. Based on my experience, it can be done.

Some of the reasons to believe it can be done come from Sunset High School located in a high poverty inner-city area of Dallas. From 2000 to 2007 the average graduation rate for Sunset was 34%. Then a multitude of positive changes happened, including a dynamic, dedicated principal who encouraged and gathered community resources and dedicated staff. Also, the School Archive Project started at one feeder middle school in 2005 to focus students onto their own plans for the future.  It is a 10-year time-capsule/class reunion/mentoring project that is popular with students and parents.  It now starts with a letter by parents to their child about their dreams for their child.

The Sunset Class of 2008 achieved a graduation rate of 44.6%, the highest graduation rate in well over a decade and 9 percentage points higher than 2007. The Class of 2009 raised the graduation rate again to 49.4%. Sunset noticed and liked what they saw with the School Archive Project focusing students onto their own futures. They installed their own 500-pound vault/time-capsule in the hallway holding all the school trophies, an area passed by all students several times a day. The other middle school feeding into Sunset also installed an identical vault in their lobby and started their own School Archive Project. The low cost of the School Archive Project, about $1 per student, and the relatively low number of hours needed by a volunteer teacher to run it each year, about 30 hours a year, make it easy to start, and attractive to teachers who would love to motivate their students and then see them again in 10 years.

The Sunset Class of 2010 achieved a graduation rate over 60 percent; its “ninth grade bulge” has virtually disappeared assuring that graduation rates will continue to rise. Students are better focused on the future and prepared to pass ninth grade and go on to the 10th, a transition most dropouts never used to make. A Sunset graduation rate of over 70 percent is anticipated within 3 years, more than doubling the graduation rate within eight years.

It is certain that once the annual class reunions begin, and former middle school students begin to speak with current middle school students in 2014 about their recommendations for success, and what they would do differently if they were 13 again, that graduation rates will go to 80percent and beyond.  This is a real revolution, with a dynamic high school principal and many dedicated staff are all coming together, with a strong, credible focus on the future, to make it happen!

“Parent Trigger” and school choice can help make things happen. But it will take more than just school choice. I personally believe that a personal focus by each student onto their own future is the power behind the changes. More students realize that if they themselves do not do the work needed, they will not achieve their goals. That ongoing student work, better focused on long term goals, is the real revolution that will live long past any of the other funding changes or other educational reforms that so much energy is being invested in.  Fortunately funding will not stop this project from spreading due to it’s exceptional low cost and powerful effect. We only need donors for the vaults for each school interested, and they cost less than $1,500 delivered and bolted to the floor.