CEO Jenni Luke

-this post was first published on MariaShriver.com-

I was honored to be invited to the NBC News Education Nation Summit held September 26-27 in Rockefeller Plaza in NYC. This was a gathering of over 350 of the top minds in education, government, business and academia as well as teachers, parents and students from across the country focused on what works and what doesn’t in education. It was an incredible two days featuring everyone from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former President Bill Clinton to a New Yorker named Stephanie, who is a high school dropout, struggling to get her GED and find a job.

As the CEO of Step Up Women’s Network, an organization committed to connecting and advancing women and girls, I was glad to hear that our after-school and mentoring programs that connect professional women with underserved high school girls to help them graduate high school confident, college-bound and career-ready were right on target with proposed solutions to the dropout crisis.  Throughout the two days of the conference a consistent message was heard: businesses will be a vital part of the solution. How can businesses help?

Mentoring is desperately needed in all communities. Class sizes are high and the student to teacher ratio makes it difficult for teachers to provide individualized attention. Mentoring can help close the gap between what schools can offer and what students need. Yosselin came to Step Up’s programs as a freshman at one of our partner high schools in Los Angeles. She was in a gang, regularly skipping school and carrying a weapon. Four years later she was the valedictorian with a full scholarship to her top choice college. By connecting Yosselin with professional women mentors and taking her on field trips to their companies, Yosselin became motivated to stay in school. As your company to allow employees time off to mentor. Create incentives in your workplace around volunteering. Make it a part of your company culture.

An internship or part-time job can reduce high school dropout rates. The number one reason teens drop out of high school is because they feel school lacks relevance to the real world. So consider providing an internship or part-time job to a teen over the summer and be the bridge between school and a vision for his or her future. One of our Step Up teens in Chicago wanted to become a professional chef. A woman in our network secured an internship for her at a top restaurant. Not only did the student excel, she won a cooking competition that awarded a full scholarship to the culinary academy that was her top choice for postsecondary education. Hiring a teen may take some extra attention on your part as an employer.  But the benefit to the teen and to the morale of your team as you coach this young person in his or her first work experience is invaluable.

Public schools are experimenting with workforce readiness.  Several communities across the country are experimenting with a 5-year high school model, where students experience job training and graduate with a trade skill or technical degree. Are you in a position to hire these graduates? Add these schools to your list of places to post open positions. Is there a vendor contract for plumbing, auto or other trade skills that would be a good fit for a school partnership? Provide learning opportunities for students and strengthen your community at the same time.

The debate around the best solutions to fix our education system continues. The good news is that you can make an impact on the education of the children in your community today.

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