This Back To School Season, What Are Students Going Back To?

Smiling teens spill out of a yellow bus into a manicured schoolyard. A school bell ringing breaks through the bouncy background track, leading the laughing students through the gleaming hallways. Colorful posters advertising extracurriculars line the walls as the students make their way to bright, modern classrooms, ready for a new year of learning.

TV commercial scenes like this one have become the prevailing images most of us conjure when we think “back to school.” But with so many of the world’s children falling through the cracks of the education system, this back to school season is the perfect time to for us to ask:

What are students in the world’s most economically disadvantaged communities going back to?

Their reality is far from the advertising fantasy blaring from televisions and filling the Sunday circulars. Urban students in the United States face overcrowded schools with overburdened teachers and poverty and violence in their communities. In developing countries, students walk miles to learn in dark, crumbling huts – if they have access to schools at all. In understanding these realities, it’s not hard to see why:

  • 1.2 million U.S. high school students drop out every year – a new dropout every 26 seconds.
  • 57 million children across the globe have no access to a school at all, and 900 million adults are illiterate.

Pause for a moment to think about those figures.

Since you started reading this post, a U.S. student has lost any chance of ever achieving her full potential, at least one more will do the same before you finish reading. And a year from now over one million will have joined them in a lifetime of missed opportunities. In the developing world, a group of kids twice the size of the population of Texas will never have the opportunity to learn to write their own names.

What does the future hold for these children? For U.S. high school dropouts and the global illiterate, the economic, social and health prospects are dire.

American high school dropouts are twice as likely to live below the poverty line (no wonder, considering they face an unemployment rate nearly three times higher than college graduates and earn on average only a third as much.) They’re also 3.5 times more likely than high school graduates to spend time in jail, and their life expectancy is about a decade shorter than college grads.

In the developing world, where every additional year of education can increase a person’s income by 10 percent, adults who cannot read and write are significantly more likely to live in poverty. Health and social implications are especially frightening for women, who account for two-thirds of the world’s illiterate. They are more likely to be forced into child marriage, nearly three times more likely to die during childbirth, and 50 percent more likely to lose a child before he or she turns five.

It’s hard to read statistics like these and not feel the emotional impact, but it is also all too easy to look away, saying, “this doesn’t affect my life.” However, that’s not exactly true. It’s estimated that our global economy would save $1.19 trillion if every person could read and write. Each high school dropout costs American taxpayers $292,000 over a lifetime ($350 billion total in a single year). These same dropouts are responsible for 75 percent of crimes committed in the U.S.

Think the Global Education Crisis can’t affect you personally? Think again.

So what’s keeping so many of the world’s youth out of school this back to school season?

In the U.S., poverty, crime, and school funding and resource issues are major factors:

  • The child poverty rate in Detroit is estimated at 60 percent, leading many students to arrive at school hungry and distracted from learning.
  • In cities like Chicago, where gang wars are raging, kids often cross through several rival gangs’ territories just to get to school, facing enormous pressures to join gangs themselves.
  • School closings have exacerbated similar dangers in Philadelphia, where a funding crisis and resulting school closings have also forced some students to change schools multiple times in four years, and extracurriculars and teacher pay are being cut.
  • In New York City, a full one-third of schools are considered overcrowded, some at 200 percent of capacity.

In much of the developing world, schools are either nonexistent or students must walk several dangerous miles to get to a classroom, which is often a crumbling hut or a makeshift classroom under the trees. Gender discrimination continues to be a major deterrent to education for many of the world’s girls. So much so that two-thirds of the millions of children not attending school are girls.

Although a world away, the common thread linking America’s urban schools and the rural villages of the developing word is a self-fulfilling cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations. While the Global Education Crisis is a complex issue, it can be summed up in the simplest terms: poverty leads to poor education, and poor education leads to poverty, and on and on…

But buildOn is working to break this cycle and we are making a difference.

Our youth service-learning programs in the United States are empowering thousands of students from challenging urban areas to improve their lives, their communities and their world. Our students are contributing hundreds of thousands of hours of service to their communities every year and cultivating the grit and determination that leads to academic and personal success. buildOn students miss 63 percent fewer days of school than their peers at the same schools and 95 percent of them graduate and go on to college.

In seven developing countries, buildOn is constructing classrooms in partnership with economically impoverished rural communities that have historically had no adequate school structure. Each village must promise to use the structures for their intended purposes and to increase gender equality in the region by sending their daughters to school with their sons. And they are fulfilling that promise, as 49 percent of students in buildOn schools are female. Every day, more than 85,000 children and adults attend nearly 700 buildOn schools – many built with the help of American students from our U.S. youth service-learning programs.

We’re making progress to end the Global Education Crisis, but there’s so much more that needs to be done. That’s why, this back to school season, we’re raising our voices to bring attention to the Global Education Crisis and buildOn’s work to end it.

We’ll be sharing more facts about the Education Crisis throughout the month and bringing you stories of the lives of students buildOn has empowered. As a member of the buildOn movement, we need your help to spread our message:

  • Follow buildOn on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We’ll be using social media to share our stories, and for each new follower, $1 will be donated to get students into buildOn programs. For every 100 new followers, we can empower a new U.S. student through buildOn.
  • Once you’ve followed buildOn on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, share our messages with your friends and family to help raise awareness, or share your own message with the hashtag #BetterBack2School.
  • Donate to support buildOn students. Any amount helps to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations.

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