Pubcasting tackles dropout crisis

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The massive American Graduate project is all about potential — the potential of students who stay in school to graduate, as well as the potential of public broadcasting stations to serve as community conveners working to identify and tackle problems.

Student participants in WUNC's Summer Youth Radio Institute

The students who participated in WUNC’s Summer Youth Radio Institute brought “young voices with rich experiences in communities we were not already a part of,” said David Brower, p.d., center. (Photo:

The multiplatform five-year initiative, seeded with $15 million from CPB, has expanded in its first year to encompass 600 partners working with 25 hub stations serving markets with some of the worst graduation rates in the country. An additional 41 stations received National Center for Media Engagement community-engagement grants for outreach or productions customized to the education needs in their communities.

Twelve Teacher Town Hall meetings convened by local stations have drawn more than 1,200 educators to discussions of their challenges in the classroom. And with next month’s American Graduate Day, participating pubcasters will bring the discussion to a much wider audience through a seven-hour telethon produced by New York’s WNET.

The Sept. 22 broadcast marathon, offered to stations nationwide, will highlight organizations battling the issue and recruit volunteers to join the cause as reading mentors or tutors by calling a centralized toll-free number. The telethon kicks off a week of related program specials airing on public television and radio stations nationally.

The CPB-backed efforts are all focused on a persistent national problem: One in four students doesn’t finish high school — that’s more than 1 million dropouts per year. The numbers are even more acute for African-American and Hispanic students, whose graduation rates are below 65 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

CPB has high-profile national partners in the fight, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; America’s Promise Alliance, founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell; and Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center.

The initiative has also prompted many collaborative projects within the system. Frontline is working with three Local Journalism Centers to produce coverage of regional educational issues. The PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs are partnering with stations to get local kids involved in telling their stories. The Independent Television Service is spearheading American Graduate Latino, which will produce Spanish- and English-language versions of the core American Graduate content, as well as two documentaries in both languages.

On the radio side, the Public Radio Exchange and NCME are curating a playlist of education-related pieces; PRX has also contracted with Connecticut Public Radio to produce an hourlong special featuring former NPR correspondent Andrea Seabrook as host. It airs Sept. 22, the same day as WNET’s telethon.

And American Graduate seeded StoryCorpsU, a yearlong high-school curriculum based on the popular oral-history project. It’s being tested now in urban classrooms in St. Louis, New York City and Washington, D.C.

American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen reaches deeply into the core of public broadcasting’s mission to produce content and educational services that  engage and empower citizens to identify problems in their communities and come together to solve them.

“It’s heartening to have organizations come to us saying, ‘We hear you’re doing this, can we get on board?’” said Lee Solonche, director of educational media services at Vegas PBS. “They are knocking on our door to get in on this.”

The power of collective work

CPB President Pat Harrison said American Graduate originated from her first major initiative at CPB, My Source, a public relations and marketing campaign that enlisted viewers and listeners who directly benefited from public media to tell their stories on the air (Current, July 23, 2007).

Through the initiative, general managers could better hear and understand exactly what stations meant to their audiences, Harrison said. “It was so profound that in many cases it changed the way stations related to their community.”

So when an idea to focus on the dropout crisis was floated during a CPB meeting with g.m.’s in October 2010, participants recognized that the topic would resonate with their viewers and listeners. American Graduate kicked off with an event at the Newseum in Washington in May 2011.

A Teacher Town Hall meeting at WHRO.

More than 100 educators participated in the American Graduate Town Hall that Virginia’s WHRO hosted in March. “After 90 minutes, they just kept talking,” station President Bert Schmidt said. “They were thrilled to be heard.” (Photo: WHRO)

The initiative closely aligns with the graduation-oriented Civic Marshall Plan from America’s Promise Alliance, a group of nearly 450 nonprofits, businesses, communities, educators and policymakers. The bipartisan alliance took root during the 1997 Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia, convened by Presidents Clinton, Bush, Carter and Ford and former First Lady Nancy Reagan. In March 2010, President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Gen. Colin Powell and alliance Chair Alma Powell met at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with hundreds of partners to launch Grad Nation, the alliance’s largest undertaking to date.

The 10-year campaign aims to get Americans involved in the effort to improve high-school graduation rates. Education “is not and cannot be the task of government alone,” Obama said. “It’s going to take nonprofits and businesses doing their part through alliances like America’s Promise.”

The plan seeks to give young students expanded community support as they progress through the education system. It emphasizes quality preschool education; ensuring kids read at grade level through elementary school; and strong science and math scores in middle school.

“We knew that in some ways, we were already doing that work, such as with Ready to Learn and PBS Learning Media,” said Debra Sanchez, CPB senior v.p. of education and children’s content.  “American Graduate gave stations a platform to talk about the way that work resonated.”

It also provides stations with an effective way to engage new partners. WHRO in the Hampton Roads region of southern Virginia has been “trying to have a relationship for years” with a local historically black college, Norfolk State University, said Bert Schmidt, WHRO president.

Through their work together on American Graduate, the college president, Tony Atwater, became a member of the station’s board. The Virginia Ship Repair Association is also partnering with WHRO for the first time; that industry group is concerned about the dropout rate because it needs qualified workers. “We didn’t have the right project for them until now,” Schmidt said.

The new relationships also generate financial support. Jack Galmiche, president of Nine Network in St. Louis, said the station’s work on the initiative has brought in more than half a million dollars in contributions from those who had not previously supported the station. “What American Graduate has done is open up the opportunity for us to talk to different types of funders interested in this issue and the work we’re doing around engagement of the community,” Galmiche said.

In addition to coordinating its own 50-partner local initiative, Nine Network is managing the project nationally, building on its experience as founder of the Facing the Mortgage Crisis project (Current, July 14, 2008). The station hired a program evaluator to assess American Graduate on both the local and national levels. “What we are already seeing here and in other places,” Galmiche said, “is that through American Graduate, public TV and radio stations are becoming more relevant. They’re being seen in a different light, as a place to come together, work together and accomplish real outcomes.”

“This is helping us understand how our partners see our role in the community,” he said, “rather than us telling them what our role should be.”

That’s exactly what’s happening on the ground in St. Louis, according to  Galmiche. The station has so far convened seven meetings among its partners, which include Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, the United Way of Greater St. Louis and the local public school system. The organizations decided to organize themselves into six groups that are focusing on specific community needs to reduce the dropout rate, such as early childhood education, economic and financial impact of not completing school, warning signs and early intervention, and the safety and security of schools and neighborhoods. The heads of those groups now meet monthly.

For Nine Network, “this is a lot about the power of convening, leading the discussions and making certain that all the groups are in conversation with one another,” Galmiche said. “The overall impact is from the collective work of the groups.”

An internship that opens many doors

The initiative is providing unexpected benefits as well, often on a personal level for pubcasters.

“We just completed an internship with a Native American student,” said Solonche, of Vegas PBS. “When I wrote the grant application for American Graduate, did I know that would enable us to have a Native American intern create a cool video? No.”

Native American intern Shawna Begay’s film on the dropout crisis is “a springboard to do several other projects with her and the Native community,” said Lee Solonche of Vegas PBS. (Photo: Vegas PBS)

The Las Vegas area includes several Native reservations, and Solonche has been looking for ways to address the educational needs and concerns of Native communities for a long time, he said. When Shawna Begay, a Navajo graduate student with a film background, applied for a station internship, he jumped at the opportunity to hire her.

Begay’s was skilled in production, technology and education, and Solonche asked her to produce a short video covering the dropout problem from a Native perspective. “She was a perfect match for American Graduate,” Solonche said.

“We worked with her closely,” he said. “Shawna went out in the field with a film crew. She participated in editing. I wanted this to be not a ‘my summer project’ type of thing but something that we and she could use with pride.”

Begay sent a rough cut of the video, Helping Native Americans Graduate, to the Equity and Diversity Education Department of the Clark County School District, “and they offered her a chance at a full-time job on the spot,” Solonche said. Shawna opted to continue her graduate studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is considering whether to continue working with the station, he said.

Her internship and film have also opened doors for Vegas PBS. “We’re using that as a springboard to do several other projects with her and the Native community as we move forward,” Solonche said.

Gaining insight into kids’ daily struggles

“This level of engagement, with American Graduate, is something brand new to us,” said David Brower, program director at WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio in Chapel Hill. “In the past, we’d host a concert or panel discussion or meeting. With this, we really got to know young people in our community and worked closely with them and experienced all the positives and challenges that go with that.”

Brower had long sought to get the station involved with the Durham Nativity School, a nearby tuition-free middle school that provides education, support and guidance for at-risk students who show leadership qualities. He hit on the idea of an afterschool youth-radio club, which laid the groundwork for a five-week summer program, Fusion Youth Radio UNC. “We wanted to hear from young voices with rich experiences in communities we were not already a part of,” Brower said.

The station leveraged its $20,000 American Graduate grant from NCME to attract additional funding, including $10,000 from the local Grable Foundation, to hire five high-school students to work as reporters under supervision of two recent college grads. The station also brought in former NPR correspondent Adam Hochberg, who now teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to speak to the cub reporters.

Through getting to know the students, “we really learned a lot about why they struggle so much” just to stay in school, Brower said. “All the things that prevent kids from graduating were on display just when we tried to hire them.” No one had a bank account for direct-deposit checks; several didn’t even have the $10 necessary to open one. No one had transportation to get to the station.

The radio segments reflected the harsh realities of the young reporters’ lives. At 21, Dante McCormick had taken six years to graduate. His piece describes how he and his brother “learned to live cheap” without electricity or running water in their home for a period of six months, Brower said. “A woman across the street let them use her spigot, and they carried buckets of water,” he said. “As clichéd as it sounds, the remarkable thing is what this told us about our community and the neighborhoods right down the street from our studio.”

Another young woman described hearing gunfire on a regular basis. “I was having a conversation with her during edits, and she said gunfire is very common,” Brower said. “But she also said, ‘It’s okay, because somebody comes by and tells us when something is going to go down.’ So there’s an early-warning system for gun violence in her neighborhood.”

“These are stories that are helping us gain insight into these communities in a way even beyond what reporters can do,” he said.

WUNC plans to seek funding to run the workshop again next summer and hopes to create an Emerging Journalists Fund to commission regular reports from the students, several of whom are enrolled at a local community college.

“It will make for good radio and keep them engaged,” Brower said.

“Everyone needs to think about this”

When WAMU Education Reporter Kavitha Cardoza heard that the station had proposed a seven- to nine-part reporting series on the dropout problem for its American Graduate project, she eagerly signed on to produce it.  “When kids drop out, that’s the end of the process,” she said. “This was an opportunity to look at all that comes before.”

Cardoza had long tackled the issues affecting graduate rates of students in the Washington, D.C., area. “But I didn’t have the chance to really sink my teeth into how complex it is,” she said. “It’s easy to say, oh, the schools are bad. But there are so many other parts to the problem, so many challenges.”

Reporting on the series “was really emotional for me. I’m usually pretty good at blocking that out.” Research showed that students show signs of dropping out as early as third grade, so she went to observe those kids. “Here they are, with their big, toothy grins,” she said. “They want to be computer experts, doctors. They have big dreams. What are we doing as a society to crush those dreams by the time they get to high school?”

She met high-schoolers in dire situations who were struggling to beat the odds and stay in school. “One lived in a homeless shelter,” she said. “He had no access to laundry, so he had to wash his underwear and socks in a sink.” One girl had worked as a prostitute; another was one of 12 people living in a two-bedroom apartment.

“I talked to many more than I could include in the series,” Cardoza said. “I felt sad, for them to share all that and in some cases just want a hug at the end of the interview. Or they would thank me just for listening. Oh, my God. I was just so grateful they’re telling me their stories.”

Cardoza received “pages and pages of emails” from listeners who had been deeply touched. “This is not a school-system issue, or a parental issue,” she said.  “Everyone needs to think about this.”

CPB’s Harrison sees the goal of broader awareness about education needs at the center of pubcasting’s work in American Graduate. “I hope that through the initiative, people understand the value of public media in specific people’s lives,” she said. “We want people to see public media as a value, and a proven benefit, and a part of being American.”


CPB launched its American Graduate initiative in May 2011 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.


The American Graduate website.

CPB’s partners on American Graduate include America’s Promise Alliance and Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center.

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