Last fall, during the 2014 Partners in Progress Back-to-School Bus Tour, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had the opportunity to meet with several inspiring students participating in 12 for Life, a program created by a private business called Southwire. While on a tour of the factory floor, the students shared inspiring and deeply personal testimonies about how 12 for Life has provided technical, leadership and life skills while enabling them to earn their high school diploma .
Brittany Beach’s story is one we will remember for many years to come. Brittany was pregnant when her high school counselor suggested she apply to 12 for Life. “Not one time did not graduating cross my mind,” she said, “Being here gave me the opportunity to attend school and not give up, because of the supports.” Now Brittany is enrolled at West Georgia Technical College and expects to be certified as a nursing assistant. There is a job waiting for her at the nearby veteran’s hospital, she said, and she wants to continue her training to become a registered nurse.
Many of her peers in 12 for Life have similar stories and are the first ones in their families ever to graduate from high school. The data confirms that Brittany is not alone. Over 5 million 14-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. are neither working nor in school.
Across the U.S., public-private partnerships are responding to address the urgency of this crisis, and 12 for Life is one example. This cooperative education program was developed in 2007 and targets many of the most vulnerable youth who are at the greatest risk of not completing high school in Georgia. Since the program’s launch, the district’s dropout rate has plunged from 35 percent to 22 percent. The program has been so successful, in fact, that it is expanding. In 2013, Carroll County School was awarded a four-year $3 million federal Investing in Innovation grant, which helped expand a version of the program in three counties and is helping start similar programs elsewhere in Georgia and other states.
Addressing the needs of the more than 5 million disconnected youth in our nation requires the support of schools and businesses in each community. 12 for Life is a unique approach that sits at the intersection of industry and education. Among the many high school reform and dropout prevention efforts, it is noteworthy not just for the notable gains and clear public benefit, but because Southwire has found the program helps make the company more competitive – providing results for its bottom line while helping develop the future workforce.
More students, school districts, and employers can benefit from this approach. By using the 12 for Life model, schools and businesses can leverage the strengths they already have to create partnerships that benefit all involved.
Scaling an intervention that works is a good idea. That is why we call on leaders in business, industry, labor, education, and philanthropy to join and coordinate efforts to expand opportunities to millions of youth across the country that need a life changing opportunity like the one 12 for Life represents. This program delivers on the promise of creating real ladders of opportunity.
Johan E. Uvin is Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.