The picture of me that was printed on my temporary ID badge made me look creepy. The security guard had taken the photo just as I let my smile go, so I looked slightly sinister. But I wasn’t allowed inside without a badge, so I stuck it on my jacket anyway. He handed me my driver’s license back, and motioned me to pass through the metal detector. I was already a bit unsettled; locked doors and video cameras were the only things that had greeted me outside the facility. Having to pass through more security than required at the airport didn’t help. Once inside, the heavy heels of a security guard’s boots against the polished linoleum floor were the only sound punctuating the silence…
This was my first time visiting a place like Western International High School, based in urban Detroit. Have you ever read one of those articles about the difficulties U.S. schools are having, with dismal test scores and rock-bottom graduation rates? This is one of those schools. Not only are things tough academically, but students have plenty of other challenges as well. Nearly all of them qualify for free lunch because their families are too poor to afford much food. Many are asked to join gangs, and do. Some have even had family members murdered. What’s most telling of all is that when students do succeed, teachers say that they do so “in spite of their parents.”
In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers, he postures that one’s success in life is necessarily a direct function of one’s IQ, test scores, or even hard work. Rather, he believes that circumstances play an overwhelming role in determining the outcome of one’s life. Well, the circumstances for these high schoolers are about as poor as they can get. And one of the most frustrating things about visiting a place like this is that as an outsider, changing those circumstances seems impossible. So while I expected my visit to leave me feeling despondent about grim outlook for these kids, that was hardly the case.
Why? Nearly 100 students at Western International HS take part in an after-school program coordinated by a non-profit called buildOn (disclaimer: buildOn is a partner of Sojo Studios, where I work). These students surprised me because they exuded hope and confidence, not despair. I had a chance to listen to several of them speak about their experience with the program. They weren’t any more gifted or talented then the rest of their class, but they were setting an example for others. They talked about how they had come to begin valuing their education. I listened intently as they described how they enjoyed doing community service on weekends. One boy talked about how he was able to finally develop self-confidence, something that had always eluded him. Another girl shyly boasted about the full scholarship she’d won to college. Her friend talked about the eye-opening experience she’d had helping build a school in Nicaragua – braving a huge step way outside her comfort zone to help kids in another part of the world.
This wasn’t a program students had been forced into by their parents or teachers. They’d joined because they were interested in taking a stop towards improving their chances in the world. These were students, whose peers were statistically likely to end up jobless or in prison, now talking about how empowered they felt in being able to improve their lives, their communities, and the world. In case those examples don’t adequately illustrate how these students defy circumstance, here’s the clincher: 95% of them will go on to college. That’s in a school where less than half will even finish high school.
While there are nearly 1400 students at Western, those 100 illustrate that the cycle of poverty and desperation can be broken. They show us that kids don’t have to be brought down by a poor environment. Not only are they improving themselves, but they’ll inspire their friends and their community, too. Fundamentally, they want to achieve the same things as any high schooler does, and they’re willing to work for it. They just need to be shown the way. For me, coming to that realization is one of the most hope-inspiring experiences I’ve had.