A Test in Engagement and Compassion

Beth Schmidt is the Founder and Executive Director of Wishbone, a new nonprofit sending at-risk high school students to after-school and summer programs.  She is a former Teach for America Corps Member, who taught 10th Grade English at Locke High School in South Central, Los Angeles. She graduated from Middlebury College and holds a Masters in Secondary Education from Loyola Marymount University. Beth was a Kauffman Labs Education Ventures Fellow. She believes in teaching students to help themselves, empowering them through the discovery of authentic and independent passions.


I taught English to 10th graders at Locke High School in South Central, Los Angeles through Teach for America. While my students stepped inside of my classroom each day with soaring amounts of pride, rarely did this pride apply to school achievement. Yet, no one asked them of what they were proud. No one asked them what they would pursue if they could. I quickly realized that low-income students lack the opportunities to explore these prideful passions outside of the classroom, which leaves them disengaged throughout the school day and discouraged when trying to meet their true life goals.  

High school students know what having a passion feels like. They can identify which passions make them their best selves. In fact, the late Dr. Peter Benson of the Search Institute claimed that “2/3 of America’s young people can quickly name one ‘spark.’”
Yet, a staggering 7,000 students will drop out of high school today. 80% of these students claim they would have stayed in school had it been relevant to their lives. That means that 80% of all high school students are not given the opportunity to explore their “sparks” or deepest passions.
We are facing a massive engagement gap where students struggle to find personal relevance in school and ambition for their futures when the school day is not tied to their passions. Students are often unable to connect their potential success in high school to pursuing their dreams in life because the next steps aren’t clear.
This engagement gap is why I worked to launch Wishbone.org, a new non-profit organization sending low-income high school students to after-school and summer programs. Wishbone’s mission is to help students find their “sparks” and ignite their passions. We identify promising students with a specific passion, connect these students to high-quality after-school and summer programs and fundraise both offline and online—through a crowd-sourced funding model—for students to attend the program(s) of their choice.
In my first year of teaching, I assigned my class our first research paper assignment, only to have less than 10% of kids turn in the paper. I scrapped the assignment and went back to the drawing board, realizing that the research assignment had nothing to do with these students’ lives. I changed the assignment and told students to instead research any after-school or summer program in the Los Angeles region that they would like to attend and to explain why. Over 85% of students turned this paper in, and on time.
After I read my students’ papers and realized their latent passions, I ran a marathon to send seven students to after-school and summer programs. These seven students all graduated high school, went on to college and claimed that the experience made them realize why succeeding in school was relevant to pursuing their passions in life. Wishbone was born from this experience.
As Dr. Benson simply suggested himself, “I would make knowing kids’ sparks at the very center of school life. In fact, I’d put it right at the front. I don’t know how you can engage and connect and bond kids to the institution called school without knowing their spark.”
By knowing what kids care about and allowing them to get out into the world and pursue their passions, they will become empowered to complete high school and imagine the variety of life paths available to them. First-hand experiences, often outside of the school day, lead to purpose, self-empowerment, and responsibility for students.
Unfortunately, in many cases, closing the engagement gap actually means closing the opportunity gap for students. While pursuing extracurricular passions lead to relevance in the school day, they also cost money. The disparity between low-income youth and their higher income peers, leaves this demographic without the opportunity to pursue these very important activities that lead to love of learning, purpose, and overall sense of self—key ingredients to success in school.
As David Brooks so clearly stated in his July 2012 Op Ed in the New York Times, “Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’…extracurriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480.” He continues that, “Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities like theater, yearbook and scouting.”
Wishbone is about closing this opportunity gap by providing low-income students with the funds to discover and engage in their passions, which they can then share with their peers in school. Wishbone launched in fourteen schools in New York City and the Bay Area this spring, and will send 150 students to out-of-school programs in our first year. These students attending programs will bring back their experiences to their classrooms and become the experts of their passions within their classroom community. We are striving to build an engaged school community and culture around a passion for learning.
Engagement also extends past the classroom. Wishbone aims to bridge the gap between the donor and the beneficiary through “up-close philanthropy.” Through Wishbone’s crowd-sourced funding model, we allow donors to find a student to support either through interest category or location preference. Donors watch students’ one-minute videos explaining what their passions are and why they want to attend a program that’s in line with their passions. Donors then select a student to fund based on interest or choose to support those students with the greatest financial need through Wishbone’s General Student Fund.
By reaching out to donors within the students’ community and throughout the global community, we hope to close the engagement gap among our donors. What happens when we are able to foster a culture that invests in and values passion within a city or suburb, where students are made to feel as though they are a part of a community that is larger than themselves? What happens when a student who has never been encouraged and supported suddenly has 25+ strangers donating their aggregated personal funds to support their passion? Wishbone is a test in engagement and compassion. My true belief is that student success is created when a culture of belief exists, when a community believes in students enough for them to engage in their learning and begin to believe in themselves.


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