By Max Gardner / Orange County Register
It’s late spring and nothing captures the spirit of the season quite like the vision of high school graduates donning their caps and gowns on football fields and in gyms and auditoriums throughout the county.
Tens of thousands of our young people are graduating from area high schools this month. They should be commended for their hard work and overcoming a variety of challenges in order to earn their diplomas and launch confidently into college, work life and adulthood.
Some students, of course, face significantly more challenges than others.
For those who live in unstable housing situations, lack access to nutritious food or simply don’t have the financial resources needed to buy school supplies, the long road to graduation is much more steep.
Despite perceptions that Orange County is nothing but a wealthy enclave of privilege, the recently released Orange County Community Indicators report shows that perception is far from reality.
With the cost of living and housing in Orange County at or near all-time highs, more than 28,000 county students are either homeless or doubled — and sometimes tripled — up with other families. This is twice the number from the last housing boom just a decade ago.
This unstable housing situation impacts everything from students’ health to their studies. Low-income parents often lack the resources and — because they’re forced to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet — the time to take their children to the doctor or help with homework. These challenges conspire to threaten students’ long-term health, education and job prospects.
These types of statistics can be paralyzing, leaving many well-intentioned citizens to question whether there’s anything they could possibly do to help. Indeed, one person can’t reverse these trends. Nor can the government do it alone. Schools have limited resources. The business community can only write so many checks.
What will chip away at and eventually overcome this seemingly insurmountable mountain of challenges is when individuals, organizations, government agencies and community leaders work together to empower our community’s ground forces that are making measurable impacts on the lives of others.
Those include talented school teachers who have worked tirelessly to help disadvantaged students — many of whom grew up fearing that graduation and college were out of reach — cross the finish line and beyond. Westminster High School’s Eric Dykes is one of those teachers.
Mr. Dykes leads the school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, an internationally proven academic teaching and learning program that holds students and teachers accountable to their highest standards while creating a college-going culture that promotes expectations of success.
Four in five of the school’s AVID students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds that serve as significant headwinds on the road to graduation and college. But Mr. Dykes’s passion for helping his students succeed overcame all that, showing tremendous early results. That’s when the collective caring power of Orange County stepped up to the plate, supplying the proven program with the resources needed to expand and make an even greater impact.
Support from United Way’s Destination Graduation initiative — a network of 22 middle and high schools throughout Orange County — combined with other resources has allowed Mr. Dykes to hire and oversee an army of tutors. Many AVID graduates themselves, these tutors are helping more students succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
Recently named a top AVID National Demonstration School among 150 programs nationally, Mr. Dykes’s program has experienced a 100 percent decline in freshman dropouts. Last year, all of the program’s seniors graduated on time and 83 percent were accepted at four-year college institutions, all because the community came together to support and help grow this worthwhile and successful program.
There are hundreds more teachers like Mr. Dykes throughout Orange County; those helping students lacking resources but not a steadfast will to succeed; those instilling the confidence to set high goals along with the skills necessary to exceed them.
Nothing is more important to our community’s future success than the education of our children. When more kids succeed, we all win. That’s why we, as a community, should commit to redoubling our efforts to ensure that the graduating classes of 2018 and beyond grow in numbers and accomplish more than they ever dreamed possible.
Max Gardner is the president and CEO of Orange County United Way. For the past five years, he has led the organization toward advancing its mission of improving lives and strengthening Orange County by focusing on the building blocks for a good quality of life: Education, Income, Health and Housing. Prior to joining United Way, Mr. Gardner was President of Irvine Company Apartment Communities. For more information about the FACE 2024 community-wide action plan, please visit www.unitedwayoc.org.