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Opportunity in Diversity

When Younis Al Barmaki arrived in America with his family from Yemen in 2014, he spoke no English. Now, the 16-year-old sophomore at Hamtramck High School is a straight-A student who also works at a family restaurant after school every day. His goal: To go to college and become an engineer.

More than half of the students at Hamtramck High School were born outside of America. An even greater number speak a language other than English at home. On top of that, Hamtramck has the highest percentage of children living in poverty in any school district in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Any one of these factors can create a substantial barrier to education for students. Put together, they make the task of not only graduating Hamtramck students, but also equipping them with necessary cultural and language skills, sound insurmountable.

But Hamtramck High, a General Motors Network of Excellence school within United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s High School Turnaround initiative, has seen four-year graduation rates rise from 65 percent in 2011 to 86 percent in 2015. And, nearly as important, school officials say the culture has improved. Students value their school’s diversity and the advantage it will give them in life.

“We offer programming that will improve the school culture overall. A better school culture leads to better students, which leads to better graduation rates.”

-- Caleb Boswell, UWSEM’s liaison at Hamtramck High School.

The school works hard to teach students English while moving them through their coursework: it has special classes for learning English, and many of the teachers and support staff speak several languages.

Younis, who excels at math and hopes to work as an engineer in the auto industry, says his favorite teachers are the ones who taught him English, because they pushed him the most to succeed.

"[My ninth grade English teacher] Ms. Lala helped me out a lot," he says. "When I came here, every week, she’d give me a book and tell me to study."

United Way and its partners help fill in the gaps, providing resources to help students apply for college and financial aid, gain literacy and SAT/ACT training, and help with learning English.

All of this was possible thanks to a $27.1-million grant from GM that paved the way for the GM Network of Excellence – a cohort of seven schools that are part of United Way’s High School Turnaround Initiative. The Initiative set the goal of raising graduating rates above 80 percent across 15 schools on 11 campuses while addressing any other issues the school may be facing.

The network of schools reached an aggregate graduation rate of 80 percent in 2015. Additionally, their efforts produced a 25% drop in chronic absenteeism – a significant victory, given the fact that absenteeism is a leading indicator for students eventually dropping out of school.

With the support of United Way, partners, and an entire community that has come together to affect lasting change, more hard-working students like Younis will have an opportunity to succeed in school, work and life. Their success yields dividends for all of us, as they grow to become contributing members of society, swell the ranks of our workforce, and lead the way to a future full of possibility. For everyone.

A more comprehensive version of this story was originally posted in its entirety here. We encourage you to check it out, and to explore more of the great work that United Way for Southeastern Michigan is doing to build stronger communities.