Twenty-six years ago, I did something in Philadelphia that many believed was misguided. I promised all 112 sixth graders at Belmont Elementary School in West Philadelphia that I'd pay their college tuition.
The reasons my commitment attracted such judgments were plain enough: These were kids from one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. Many were reading at a second-grade level. Nearly 40 percent of them had been classified as learning-disabled. In other words, they seemed to have no chance. To many, I was wasting my money raising the hopes of the hopeless.
And so it might seem: More than two decades later, only 20 of the "Belmont 112" have earned four-year college degrees. While that's actually a better rate than the 10 percent of Philadelphia public school alumni overall who end up graduating from college, it's still not a proportion to brag about.
But was it a waste? I'm a businessman. I deal in numbers. And the numbers that worry me the most are these:
In the nation's cities, only about half of students typically graduate from high school. And as researchers have verified, academic attainment translates directly into financial security: Households headed by a high school graduate end up accumulating 10 times more wealth than households headed by a high school dropout. And those headed by someone with a bachelor's degree or higher accumulate 94 times more wealth.
Education can literally give families the ability to control their own destinies.
That's why the Belmont class was the first of many we've invested in. Since 1987, when I created Say Yes to Education, a national nonprofit foundation devoted to improving high school and college graduation rates for inner-city youth, we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the futures of children living in hard-hit urban areas, including Philadelphia, Hartford, Conn., and Cambridge, Mass., as well as Harlem, Syracuse, and Buffalo in New York.
What started out as a promise to those students at Belmont has blossomed into an effort that works with entire city school districts and is creating a new generation of scholars.
We learned many things from our work in Philadelphia that have helped ensure that more than 75 percent of Say Yes students have graduated from high school and more than 50 percent have also earned postsecondary degrees. In Philadelphia, our chapter is now a high-performance model for the rest of the district: Among the 50 Say Yes students now completing high school, 70 percent are on track to graduate on time (95 percent will graduate on time or with one additional year).
From our work at Belmont, we learned that the tuition, mentoring, and tutoring we underwrote were just a few of the pieces needed to solve this puzzle. We needed to think bigger and offer comprehensive services on a broader scale to ensure that these young people had the best opportunities to succeed. That's why we now provide our support services to children as they enter kindergarten - the earlier we provide these services, the bigger the change will be in the students' lives. And we've moved from working with classrooms to entire school districts.
Our efforts with midsized cities such as Syracuse and Buffalo have allowed us to devise strategies that bring public and private community partners together to help children and their families overcome what are often roadblocks to success: academic, social, and emotional readiness; health and well-being; and financial resources.
In Syracuse, where we offer services and scholarships to all 21,000 students, we're seeing promising signs: The graduation rates have risen 7 percent, juvenile crime rates have dropped 50 percent, and people are seeking to move back to Syracuse to take advantage of scholarships.
The progress is a result of changing business as usual. It involved:
Establishing metropolitan strategies to reallocate public resources to students and families.
Creating collaborative governance among school districts, and county and city governments; and creating partnerships with private agencies to make needed services and supports available to all young people.
Building a long-term scholarship endowment for young people, and building a network of more than 100 colleges willing to provide tuition support for students who meet their admission requirements.
The change we envision for cities takes time and a great deal of patience, but the last 25 years have convinced me that this is an essential investment even for the nation's largest cities, like Philadelphia. The problems affecting low-performing schools and declining neighborhoods won't immediately disappear, but, with the right strategy and leadership, we can generate lasting change. This is not folly; it is the unfinished work that every city owes its future generations.