Though it was intended as a day to discuss the issue of high school dropouts, Wednesday's National Summit on America's Silent Dropout Epidemic was one of the best excuses possible to skip school and get educated about the importance of making it to graduation.
Held in Washington, D.C., with a panel of guests that included first lady Laura Bush, CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, MTV President Christina Norman and Sway, the focus of the daylong event was to reduce the number of teen dropouts.
Each year more than 1 million high school students drop out of school, and the summit — a joint effort by MTV, Time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Civic Enterprises and the National Governors Association — aimed to find novel solutions to the problem.
Sway introduced the Youth Perspective panel. "Typically when we write up policies or we write up grants or we make programs for these students, the conversation is among adults," he said. "Well, today we get to hear the voice of the young people, and I think that's what makes the difference."
He then introduced Jynell Harrison, winner of thinkMTV's Be the Voice campaign and a $10,000 college scholarship. She sat alongside a trio of teens who talked about their experiences.
"I was one of the lucky ones," said Harrison, whose forthright delivery was intended to stir the audience into action. "I was discouraged, not properly prepared, and nobody at school tried to understand the challenges I faced daily. I graduated because of the constant support of my mother and my grandmother. But not all kids have strong people in their lives to guide them." Harrison said she believes schools must be more sensitive to the situations teens are facing at home and how they affect their studies.
"They misinterpret a lack of focus as a loss of determination and will, and soon that's what it becomes," she said of her school's administrators and teachers. "I think there needs to be more support for kids at school. Students need caring advisers and counselors to help them deal with issues in their lives. Kids who face difficult circumstances shouldn't have to win a scholarship they see on TV. Or have that one great teacher who believes in them in order for them to make it. It shouldn't be about luck. There are so many young people out there with talent, intelligence and passion, but instead of offering it to the world, they get lost. I almost got lost, too, but I know I'm going to make it. I'm proud to speak to you all as the voice of young students everywhere."
After going through a period of doubt when she considered dropping out, teen panelist Kristen Hignite turned things around and became the first person in her family to graduate from high school, while Lyle Oates told an emotional tale about how he left school and ended up selling drugs on the streets before putting himself back on track to get his diploma.
Many of the conference's panels focused on administrators, congressional leaders, governors, educators and experts discussing the specifics of the problem. But there were also some breaks from the academic conversations, such as when First Lady Bush gave her keynote address and introduced a performance from Washington's Ballou High School Choir, which sang "The Wind Beneath My Wings."
Bush praised Oates for turning his life around and opened her remarks by reminding the audience that 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin observed, "An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest." She added, "Our country has learned that investing in education yields citizens who can develop their talents, pursue their passions and make the very most of America's opportunities. Investing in education yields a nation that's healthier, more prosperous and more secure."
The First Lady touched on the social effects of dropouts, citing studies that show how dropouts are more likely than high school graduates to be unemployed, have poor health, live in poverty or on public assistance and possibly end up in jail.
MTV President Norman introduced a video snippet of "The Dropout Chronicles," a show that debuted on MTV Wednesday night. On hand was one of the three students featured in the series, Gleendilys "Glendy"
"I can't imagine that I would be standing here if the civil-rights campaign had been some sort of a silent epidemic," said Norman, who is black. "We can't let that be the case with education either. Hopefully the consequences of these decisions will help in shaping how we all determine what young people need on a larger scale and how we can continue to raise our voices in a chorus to make education reform a real priority in this country. The young people of this country deserve better. They're ready to do their part. It's time to do ours."
In the show, Bronx, New York, native Inoa talks about how, after being held back a year, she struggles to stay in school in the face of a daunting hours-long commute just to get to her classes. MTV is providing a digital broadcast of highlights from the event that will allow high school students around the country to watch and comment on the summit and offer their own perspectives on the issue.