is a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania
is president and CEO of America's Promise Alliance
Seeing images of the living presidents together last month in Dallas brought us back to Philadelphia. Sixteen years ago, we had the privilege of helping organize another presidential gathering - a summit whose influence can still be felt.
From April 27-29, 1997, Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald R. Ford (with Nancy Reagan representing Ronald Reagan) gathered at Independence Hall. Three thousand others - 30 governors, 100 mayors, and many community delegations and other leaders - attended the Presidents' Summit for America's Future.
The presidents insisted that America's strength was inextricably linked to the success of young people. Specifically, they said, we all share a solemn obligation to see that young people have the building blocks for success that we came to call the five promises: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to help others.
What the presidents proclaimed in Philadelphia was really a declaration of interdependence. A recognition that the education challenge is more than just a "schools" challenge; that children thrive only when we respond to a broad range of their needs; and that making the promise of America real for all young people requires that everyone work together, especially at the local level.
The anniversary of the Presidents' Summit connects to another significant anniversary. Thirty years ago, a bipartisan commission released a report that sounded a national alarm. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," read the most quoted line from "A Nation at Risk," "we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
The Presidents' Summit under the leadership of Gen. Colin Powell was a response to the alarm. And the America's Promise Alliance, which emerged from the summit, became part of a growing movement to mobilize all Americans on behalf of children. Companies like State Farm, Target, and Boeing have made the education and development of our young people a top priority. AT&T, through its Aspire initiative, has invested $350 million in education.
In the spirit of collaboration the presidents envisioned, public-private partnerships focused on youth are gaining traction. Right here in Philadelphia, Project U-turn reengages students to complete their high school education after dropping out. This citywide collaborative among schools, youth-serving organizations, foundations, city agencies, parents, and students has become a model for programs nationwide.
Such far-reaching efforts - adding to the effect of innovative, data-driven school reform - are making a difference. As the recent "Building a Grad Nation" report showed, for the first time we're on pace to achieve a national graduation rate of 90 percent by 2020. Some of the most dramatic improvements are in cities and states where the dropout crisis was thought to be intractable.
The progress inspires optimism. It should also challenge us to do more, faster. At a time when a high school diploma is only the starting line for success, more than one in five students today drop out before graduation. We are still a nation at risk.
But the presidents showed us the way forward. Great schools, great teachers, and rigorous curriculum are essential. But they are not enough, because many factors that drive academic success are beyond the hours and outside the walls of schools:
Children who start school days with breakfast are 20 percent more likely to graduate.
Children who have safe places away from school are more likely to use their time productively and avoid trouble.
Children with regular access to health care miss fewer days of school, and good attendance correlates with school success.
Children who serve their community learn responsibility and gain a sense of self-worth.
We know that grit and persistence - attributes that researchers recognize as foundations for success - aren't acquired only in classrooms. They're learned from the adults in children's lives, from all of us.
We cannot overstate the importance of the early years of a child's life - the years that determine whether a 5-year-old arrives in kindergarten ready to learn or already two years behind. If we are to be a Grad Nation, we need much more high-quality, early-childhood education.
The presidents who came together in Philadelphia knew what we must embrace: Schools can't do it alone. It takes a commitment and action from all of us to keep the promise of America. It is an economic imperative. And a moral one for those of us who believe that educational opportunity is the civil rights issue of our time.