Magazine Feature / People

GSSW alumni address high school drop-out crisis

While many schools report high drop-out rates, Byrne Urban Scholars — a Denver-based nonprofit that assists academically struggling youth — boasts a graduation rate of 100 percent for the past academic year.

“This is a real crisis that perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” says Byrne Executive Director Patrick Byrne (MSW ’06), citing data that puts Denver’s average drop-out rate at 37 percent.

“We have a responsibility to equalize the playing field in Denver,” Byrne says. “The youth we help don’t have the same opportunities because they don’t have the same access to resources.”

Education helped Byrne’s father, who grew up on Chicago’s south side, become a successful entrepreneur. In 1995, Byrne’s parents, Larry and Margaret, established the Byrne Foundation to provide scholarships and help prepare high school students for college and careers.

The foundation, which initially served fewer than 10 students, has since grown into a professionally staffed public charity that provides services to 114 students.

Staffed almost entirely by alumni of DU’s Graduate School of Social Work — including Amanda Brown (BA ’02, MSW ’06), Susan Whittle (MSW ’07) and Barbara Decker (BA ’87, MSW ’91) — Byrne Urban Scholars provides students with one-on-one mentoring, academic support, life-skills training and college preparation.

“I really like to think of it as we’re a team working together and the student is the star player,” says Brown.

Teachers, counselors and principals from Denver-area middle schools recommend average or below-average students for the program. Byrne staffers then identify those students who value education but lack the necessary skills or support system to be successful.

After acceptance to the program, students are matched with a mentor and placed in a charter or private school. These partner schools — which include Arrupe Jesuit High School, Mullen High School, La Academia, Bishop Machebeuf Catholic High School and the Denver School of Science and Technology — all have high graduation rates, access to academic support, smaller class sizes and innovative models. Middle school students attend St. Rose of Lima Catholic School.

While the cost per student comes out to about $3,000 per year, program participants have consistently delivered returns on the investment. Not only did the entire class of 2009 graduate, they all have plans to attend college.

Essence Moore, a senior public policy major at DU, credits Byrne Urban Scholars with widening her horizons.

“It exposed me to different opportunities and ensured that I would go to college,” says Moore, who now volunteers as a mentor for the program.

By giving students better opportunities and providing a support system, Byrne Urban Scholars proves that even underperforming students can be successful.

“What these students really need to hear is, ‘You can do this. You can create change for yourself, your family and the generations that follow,’” Whittle says.

Comments are closed.