Charlie Bean and the Role of Everyday Champions

Charlie Bean is known around the St. Louis Public Schools system as “The Tracker.” He is soft-spoken, but his job is hard: He seeks out students who leave high school before graduating, coaxes them back to school, and supports their journey to graduation.

Each year since 2009, Bean connects with about 1,000 out-of-school students and works closely with hundreds. To date, he has helped 254 young adults collect diplomas in St. Louis and many more complete their degrees in other jurisdictions or get their GEDs.

Bean has been widely recognized for his work. Public Media’s American Graduate initiative, a movement devoted to raising graduation rates, even named him an “American Graduate Champion.” And he’s beloved by the many students he has guided back to school.

But earlier this year, success and admiration hit a budget wall. For months, many worried that Bean’s job would be eliminated.

A five-year federal grant supporting Bean’s position expires at the end of September, and it appeared the school system would not be able to pick up the costs. Bean, a 22-year veteran teacher and administrator, would likely have gone back to another full-time position in the district. He would have been okay. But for the kids he helps, the loss would have been devastating.

Like most young people whose high school education is interrupted, Bean’s students face a cluster of problems, typically more than one at a time: difficulties with foster care, homelessness, incarceration of a parent, chronic violence around them or within their family, criminal activity, early pregnancy, illness of a loved one and much more. And, they tell Bean, at school they often feel invisible, ignored and sometimes actively disparaged and discouraged.

Not surprisingly, young people living in challenging circumstances tend to be, by necessity, resilient and resourceful. But for many of them, resilience and resourcefulness are not enough to overcome the barriers they face. They require something that so many others their age take for granted: help from caring adults to reassure and guide them, steer them toward opportunity and keep them on track.

A just-released study from America’s Promise Alliance points out that anchoring relationships with adults like Bean play a vital role in helping young people stay in school. As Bean says: “The kids who come into my program, they are destroyed inside. Some are raising themselves. They’ve seen so much turmoil in their short lives. I try my best not to judge these kids on their past. I take them as who they are. We erase everything. We do whatever it takes to help them overcome. They’ve already gone through war to get to where they are when I first work with them. My job is to help them get to where they’re supposed to be.”

Researchers found that caring, engaged adults meet two categories of needs for struggling young people: They meet instrumental needs – such as finding reliable transportation to and from school and work, child care or paid work – and emotional ones. They – like all of us, really – need people who believe in them and who won’t give up on them.

Bean’s exposure via public media turned out to be much more than just another well-deserved plaudit. It saved his position. American Graduate stories on Bean broadcast on Nine Network, St Louis’s public television station, triggered calls and emails from parents and the community to preserve the program. In the end, Superintendent Kelvin Adams announced that the school system would make the funds available to enable Bean to continue his work indefinitely.

That’s great news. While the nation’s graduation rate has reached record 81.4 percent, up 11 percentage points the past 10 years and a record high, we still have a long way to go to reach our goal of 90 percent by 2020 and to close the graduation gaps for students from low-income families, students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.

We need more Charlie Beans and more caring adults stepping up to help. And we need initiatives like Public Media’s American Graduate to keep momentum behind our national conversation about graduation rates and to mobilize caring adults everywhere.

As Charlie Bean shows us, progress comes with persistence — and love. “You can talk to all of my kids, and they will all say they don’t get the love they want or need,” Bean says. “That’s our major problem. If we can wrap our arms around one, what a difference it will make in their life.”

John S. Gomperts

John S. Gomperts is President and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, whose signature effort, the GradNation campaign, mobilizes Americans to increase the on-time high school graduation rate.