As a trustee at Howard University in the mid-1990s, General Colin Powell noticed a disturbing trend among the school's incoming freshman class. About 67 percent of the students were female, causing the nation's first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State to ask a very basic question: "Where's the brothers?"
That question sent Powell on what appears to be a life-long mission to improve the dropout rate among all American high school students, with a new and more urgent focus on helping Black males, who lag far behind their White counterparts.
The dismal entry rates of African-American males into college are, of course, directly related to the achievement gap that they face in high school, Powell says.
"The brothers are messing around too much, and when they do get into college, they don't graduate at the same rate that the ladies do, and this creates a problem twenty years from now when these young ladies of accomplishment and education cannot find suitable partners," he says.
Starting with America's Promise Alliance, the nonprofit organization that he founded in 1997, Powell has been at the forefront of raising public awareness about dropout rates and has solicited support from his wife, Alma, who now chairs the organization, and his son, Michael, who serves on the group's board of directors.
"The reason why I was able to achieve some level of success in our country and in our society was because I got a good public education," he says. "And I don't think we have any greater investment to make in our society than to educate young people.
"I'm disturbed by the level of young people who don't finish high school" he continues. "I see a little less than a third of all of our students not finishing and a high percentage of our African-American and Hispanic students not finishing. If you don't finish high school, you're capping yourself off right there."
By 2008, Powell had called the nation's dropout rate an "American catastrophe" and, in 2010, America's Promise, along with 400 other partnering organizations, convened a summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to take new and bold steps to shift the tide. "There would be no America's Promise without General Powell and his family," says John Gomperts, the president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based group. "He helped birth the organization and movement and his imprint is huge."
At 76, Powell remains committed to this work.
"Many people in Colin's position, when they reach this stage in their life, they go away and disappear," says Dr. W. Wilson Goode, the former mayor of Philadelphia, who is a board member of America's Promise. "But he's using all of his capital to do something about the number-one problem facing America, and that is the high school dropout rate."
Unlike other former Secretaries of State, like Condoleezza Rice, Madeline Albright and Henry Kissinger, who returned to the university classroom once their tenure ended, Powell seems most comfortable behind the scenes, rallying the troops, raising funds and bringing out reform on a broader and more holistic level.
"America's Promise is not ideological along any of the conventional political spectrums," says Gomperts, adding that Powell himself is generally not viewed among the public as a steadfast ideologue who is unwilling to compromise, and thus, has been able to bring Republicans and Democrats together to work on education initiatives. …