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MEDIA: News-Leader Profile of Bill Milliken

'Dumb' student: 'Stop epidemic' of dropouts
November 19, 2007
By Glenda S. Jenkins, News-Leader

No one knew how to help him learn, so they asked him to leave school.

"I thought I was dumb. And they said the reason I was in so much trouble was I couldn't handle the work," he said. Later Bill Milliken discovered, "I learn differently, like a lot of kids do."

After receiving intervention from a caring volunteer, Milliken returned to school. The former "at risk" student has advised three U.S. presidents as an advocate for students who struggle academically as he once did. He founded Communities in Schools, the largest dropout prevention organization in the nation.

"I never thought I'd make it out of anywhere," he said. "It's a miracle. Nobody could have planned this thing."
Milliken spoke Tuesday during a Communities in Schools fundraiser at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. He recently published the book, The Last Dropout: Stop the Epidemic!

"We're losing a third of our kids and half that third are minorities," he said about students who fail to graduate with their class. "And half of them will never have a job in their lifetime, because you just aren't going to do it in today's global economy.

"I think it's the biggest justice issue in America," Milliken said. "Not only is it morally a huge issue. But economically it's a huge issue. And the combination of the two, we're going to be a second-rate nation," he said.

"When you have more male adults in prison than in jobs, you've got a huge problem. It's wrong," Milliken said. "Kids who get an education are going to be the haves and the kids who don't aren't. So it's that clear-cut."

The book outlines nine principles for giving students, particularly those in jeopardy of dropping out, the opportunity to focus on learning. The first principle, "Programs don't change kids, relationships do," is by far the most important, he said.

The foundation for that principle likely came from Milliken's personal experience. Milliken grew up when no educational alternatives existed to help a student behind in school.

His teachers were unable to identify or adapt to his learning style, "So I acted out," he said. "Instead of hurting myself, I hurt other people."

After he left high school, a volunteer from Young Life, a non-denominational Christian outreach program for students, came into his blue collar Pittsburgh neighborhood. "And I saw for the first time an adult who walked their talk...He loved us into change," he said. "It was through that, I committed my life. He got me back in school within three months.

"We can't ask our teachers to take on kids that...come into school angry, (without) basic needs met," Milliken said. "We can't ask our teachers to be mother, father, sister, brother, social worker."

Fewer than 2,000 schools in America are producing half of the dropouts, he said, referencing a recent study identifying such schools as "dropout factories."

"What that means to me is it's a solvable issue because we can concentrate on those," Milliken said. "All kids can learn. They'll go to the heights if you give them the resources."