Excerpt from a high school graduation speech

In 2011, I was privileged to speak to graduating students of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. Following is the main content of that speech:

I’m going to tell you two stories. They’re related, and each of them will illustrate a point. I’ll then close my remarks by making a request of you graduates.

Here’s the first story. After they won the state Class A championship, Indy Met’s basketball team was invited to Washington D.C. They visited a lot of the places tourists usually visit – the U.S. Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, part of the Smithsonian. They also visited Ben’s Chili Bowl and learned of its history and the history of that part of the city. Bens Chili Bowl

Ben’s is a little restaurant near the intersection of 12th & U streets. It was started by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958 – an exciting time on U Street, which was then known as “Black Broadway.” A lot of famous people frequented the area and many of them ate at Ben’s from time to time: people like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King Jr, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby. Times were good.

Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958 from their website, http://benschilibowl.com/

Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 from their website, http://benschilibowl.com/

Then came 1968 and the assassination of Dr. King. Riots broke out in many cities, and U Street was in the middle of the riots in our nation’s capital. Businesses closed down or were burned down. That part of Washington was a war zone, and it looked like it. I know. I moved to Washington in the fall of 1968 and drove through that area – once. That area – in fact, much of Washington – was no longer safe. I found that out the hard way when, a few months after moving there, I was held up at gunpoint about a mile from where Ben’s is located.

1974

1974

Obviously, I survived. And so did Ben’s. It stayed open. But then in the 1970s that part of Washington was taken over by drug dealers and the entire area suffered. Still – Ben’s survived. Business began to improve, but then in the 1980s construction began on the Green Line of the D.C. subway system, the Metro. That part of U Street became a big hole – the construction went on for five years. Still – Ben’s survived.

1987

1987

Gradually, the area came back. Business improved, and Ben’s became increasingly well known. Barack Obama ate lunch there a few days before his inauguration. Ben died in 2009, but two of his sons continue to operate the business, which has expanded and is thriving.

Many times it would have been easy for Ben to quit or move to another part of town. But he what he started has become a Washington institution. And that leads me to the second story.

There’s another institution in Washington D.C. that started four years after Ben started his restaurant. It’s called the Community Club, and it operates in the basement of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington. Volunteers come there every Thursday evening to tutor young people. During its first 40 years, the Community Club had only two directors. They, too, were volunteers who made long term commitments to try to make a difference in people’s lives, and thousands of young people benefited.

 

I attended that church, and shortly after I moved to Washington I started volunteering in the Community Club, where I tutored two boys one-on-one for over a year. They seemed to benefit, but so did I. In fact, it changed the course of my life. I got so much personal satisfaction from that experience I started searching for a place where I could use my educational background, get a similar kind of satisfaction, and get paid at least enough to live on. That search led me to Goodwill Industries and started me on a career that lasted more than 40 years, during which I helped start a school – Indianapolis Metropolitan High School – that educates a lot of students very much like those I tutored in Washington D.C. in the late 1960s.

 

Here’s my point. The greatest accomplishments and life’s greatest rewards come from making and keeping long term commitments. It might be a commitment to go further with your education or to start and grow a business; it might be a commitment to a job or a career or some cause you deeply believe in. Or it might be a commitment to another person – a spouse, for example, or a kid you mentor or tutor. Nothing really worthwhile in life comes quickly or is easy, and no job is fun all the time. But if you make the commitment and stick with it – like Ben Ali did – through the inevitable ups and downs, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish and how full your life can be.

Th

So here’s my request of you graduates. As you enter adulthood, and if you really appreciate the people who have helped you get to this point in your life, make it a point – and a priority – to do something good for someone else. It might be a kid you tutor or mentor or an elderly person who needs some help. Regardless, do something good for someone else – not just once, but over an extended period of time – at least a year – and don’t expect anything in return. You’ll make someone else’s life a bit better, you’ll get a lot of satisfaction from the experience, and you just never know where it might lead you in life.

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On the Importance of High Expectations

In recent weeks, I’ve become acquainted with three Excel Center students who have received or will soon receive their high school diplomas. All three of these young adults have disabilities, were in “special education” during their childhoods, and failed to graduate from the large public high schools they attended. One of the three had tried in three different large high schools, but the results were always the same.

Yet, at the three different Excel Centers these students attended, all of them succeeded. They earned the credits they needed for a Core 40 diploma and passed the End-of-Course Assessments required by the State of Indiana. In addition, two of them have already earned post-secondary credentials that increase their employability and earning potential.

What made the difference?

As I’ve asked several members of our staff that question, two themes emerge. First, there are a lot of people who simply don’t expect much from a student labeled “special education.” Many times, such students aren’t challenged, and it’s often difficult for a large high school to provide the kind of individual attention that can sometimes help a student rise above generally low expectations and begin to realize his or her potential.

The second theme is that the small size and structure of The Excel Center; the team approach taken by the teachers, life coaches, and other staff; and the individual help that is readily available in each Excel Center are just what many “special ed” students need to make the most of their potential.

In addition, we believe our students can succeed, and we expect them to do so. Over the years, we’ve seen many examples of young people and adults who rose above the low expectations of others to accomplish what many might not have thought possible. One of the early graduates of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School Goodwill started ten years ago is a good example. A “special education” student, his parents didn’t think he’d ever earn a high school diploma. He proved them wrong, went on to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, and is now employed by that college.

More recently, I saw a letter written by a 2014 graduate of Indy Met. In it, she describes how she had been ready to drop out of the large high school she previously attended. Her parents even expected her to do so. But, at Indy Met the teachers had more faith in her than she had in herself. As she stated, “Without Indy Met’s amazingly supportive staff, I would have given up a long time ago.” As it is, she’s enrolled in college and will begin taking classes this summer.

Far too many of the people we see every day have seldom had anyone who believed they had much potential. And if no one else has confidence in you, it can be very hard for you to have confidence in yourself. Failure can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In our work, we must be able to see the potential in every person and do everything we can to help them realize that potential. We won’t always succeed. But with the right kind of help over a sustained period of time, a lot of people will rise above their circumstances and accomplish far more than many others ever thought possible – and often, even more than they thought themselves capable of.

Second Chances

It’s not unusual to hear someone speak of America as a land of second chances. In this country, most people tend to be reasonably forgiving and willing to give a person another chance – most of the time and within limits, at least.

Neither is it unusual for me to hear people at Goodwill talk about how we or someone in our organization gave them a second chance. I frequently hear this from students in our Excel Centers. Our students are older youth and adults who, for any of a variety of reasons, had dropped out of school. While many of them later wanted to complete the work required for a diploma, the options available to them just didn’t fit their life circumstances.

Since we opened the first Excel Center, the demand for space in these unique high schools has been phenomenal. From 300 students in one location just three years ago, we now have nearly 3,000 students in nine central Indiana locations. All of our students have enrolled voluntarily, and most are grateful to have another chance to complete what they didn’t finish the first time around. Better yet, their opportunities don’t end when they receive their diploma. If they have the desire and are willing to put forth the necessary effort, Goodwill will continue to work with them until they attain a post-secondary credential, become employed, and remain in the workforce for at least a year.

There’s another group at Goodwill that is benefiting from a second chance. Over 300 of our employees have criminal records, and many of them have had a very hard time finding an employer who would give them an opportunity to start life anew. Does it always work out? Of course not. But most of the time, it does. The benefits – to the individuals who have been given a second chance and to our society at large – are huge.

Throughout its history, Goodwill has employed a lot of people few others seemed willing to hire – whether because of a disability, a criminal history, a low education level, or some other barrier. In many cases, rather than a second chance, Goodwill has given them a first chance to become productive, contributing citizens.

There are limits, of course. While we are happy to work with those who put forth their best effort and try to do a good job, those who make it difficult or impossible for us to trust them will seldom find another opportunity in our organization. Neither will those who demonstrate a pattern of treating others poorly.

On the other hand, employees who demonstrate good work habits and a good attitude, consistently treat others with respect, have a genuine desire to improve their education and skill levels, and are willing to put forth the necessary effort to do so may qualify for assistance from Goodwill that can lead to better career opportunities with us or with another employer. The options available through Goodwill or other entities with which we have strong relationships are greater than ever.

One of Goodwill’s historic values is that we provide opportunities, not charity, and foster development, not dependency. That value is just as strong today as it was when Goodwill was founded in the early years of the 20th century – whether it’s a first, second, or maybe even a third chance.

A perspective on the GED and why the Excel Center is a more effective option for many

The following excerpt from How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012) is one illustration of why I believe Tough’s book should be read by anyone who is seriously interested in finding long term solutions to a lot of persistent social problems.

“(James) Heckman wanted to examine more closely the idea that young people with GEDs were just as well prepared for further academic pursuits as high-school graduates. He analyzed a few large national databases, and he found that in many important ways, the premise was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren’t anything like high-school graduates. At age twenty-two, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes – annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs – GED recipients looked exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.

From a policy point of view, this was a useful finding, if a depressing one: In the long run, it seemed, as a way to improve your life, the GED was essentially worthless. If anything, it might be having a negative overall effect by inducing young people to drop out of high school. But for Heckman, the results also posed a confounding intellectual puzzle. Like most economists, Heckman had believed that cognitive ability was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. Now he had discovered a group – GED holders – whose test scores didn’t seem to have any positive effect on their lives.

What was missing from the equation, Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school. Those traits – an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan – also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally.”

Obtaining a GED is a successful completion of an event – passing a test. On the other hand, a diploma takes consistent effort over time to achieve. Students must earn credits, stick to their goals, set targets and deadlines, and work to reach the goals. It takes more persistence, grit, and motivation to achieve.

Part of the job of an Excel Center “coach” is to help students develop the traits that will improve their life prospects. Even after graduation, the ongoing relationship we offer with a Goodwill Guide is intended to reinforce those traits.

Excel Center students dropped out of high school for a wide variety of reasons. Our schools offer a new path to those persons and other older youth and adults who did not think they would ever have another chance. Not all will succeed, but many will.

Multidimensional impact

At a recent Excel Center graduation, 55 adults walked across the stage in caps and gowns to receive their high school diplomas. After the ceremony, the father of one of the graduates approached me to express his gratitude for the Excel Center. Not long after she dropped out of school, his daughter realized she had made a mistake, but was not able to find a way to return to school that would fit her life situation. Then she found out about the Excel Center. She not only earned a diploma; she also began post-secondary studies, which she is continuing at IUPUI.

Her father kept repeating to me how much he appreciated Goodwill for starting a school like the Excel Center. But then his wife entered the conversation and said that there was another reason why her family appreciated Goodwill. Over a year earlier, both she and her husband lost their jobs. They had gone through their savings and were on the verge of losing their house. Fortunately, they were also aware of Goodwill’s Outlet Stores, which sell merchandise that did not sell in Goodwill’s other stores. Most of the merchandise is sold by the pound, and the stores have been incredibly popular.

Many of the customers who frequent the Outlet Stores buy goods they then try to resell. The family of the Excel Center graduate began doing this – buying merchandise in large quantities and reselling much of it online. They were able to make enough money to keep their family fed and to make their house payments. As the mother said to me, “Goodwill helped us keep our house.”

As I thought about my conversation with the parents of that graduate, it struck me that both the Outlet Stores and the Excel Centers are relatively recent innovations at Goodwill. And while they operate in separate divisions of Goodwill, both have had a significant direct positive impact on that graduate and her family.

Another recent development at Goodwill is also beginning to have multidimensional impact. Early in 2012 we began operating Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective nurse-led home visitation program for first-time mothers in low income households. Registered nurses make weekly or biweekly visits with the mom and baby until the child is two years old. Their main areas of focus are on health related matters and the development of good parenting skills. Some of the moms are students in an Excel Center, and some are employed by Goodwill. Again, a multidimensional impact.

A few years ago we made a conscious decision to take a more holistic, whole family approach in our work. We also recognized the importance of long term relationships for lasting impact. Accordingly, we have made a commitment to maintain an active, supportive relationship with every graduate of our schools until he or she obtains a post-secondary credential, becomes employed, and remains in the workforce for at least one year. We have also developed a data warehouse that will help us track the progress of every graduate indefinitely. This, in turn, will help maximize positive outcomes for our graduates and help us continue to improve the effectiveness of the services we offer.

Every innovation – in fact, every major step we have taken – especially over the last twenty years – has built on what we had learned from earlier experiences. Constant learning, wonderfully talented staff, and a strong financial position made possible largely by donors of goods, retail customers, and donors of money to the Goodwill Foundation have produced a recipe that is yielding increasingly positive, often multidimensional, long term benefits for many individuals and their families and for the communities in which we operate.