In 2014, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program will celebrate 30 years of positively impacting the lives of thousands of youth who were at risk of dropping out. Created by IDRA, this dropout prevention program began in San Antonio in 1984 and has operated in more than 550 schools throughout the continental United States, Puerto Rico, Brazil and the United Kingdom. In Brazil it operated from 1999 to 2011 in 46 schools in 21 cities and seven states at its peak.
Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA President and CEO, states, “In the past three decades, the
Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has maintained a less than 2 percent dropout rate, which is an incredible legacy.” The program’s success stems from its basis on the creed: All students are valuable, none is expendable.
The voice of one parent about her daughter says it all: “When she entered high school, she began skipping classes. I demanded that she complete homework. I emailed teachers daily until they apparently got tired of them and would no longer respond. They would tell me that she [never] turned in homework, so she was failing. By this time, I was at my wit’s end. She really was on the very tip of dropping out… I was at the end of my rope… That is when the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program was implemented [at her school].
“The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program gave my daughter a new reason for living. She has formed bonds with her tutees that will last a lifetime. She is aspiring to be an elementary teacher. She has found her youthful dreams and goals again. She has been accepted to college, and she is so excited by this new beginning.”
IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program works by identifying middle and high school students who are in at-risk situations and enlisting them as tutors for elementary school youngsters who also are struggling in school. The secondary students who participate may be struggling with reading, writing, math, and English language skills. While tutoring in the core subject areas with younger students who have, at least, a four year grade level difference, the tutors begin to strengthen their own academic skills.
One of the most relevant program virtues is its continuous assessment by every stakeholder – school personnel, parents, tutors and IDRA staff. Through evaluations, these stakeholders frequently report extraordinary effects the program has on the tutors in terms of improved discipline, self-concept, dedication to their educational goals, and renewing their outlook about life and the future. In Brazil, for example, parents credited the program with saving their children from the perils of the streets and instilling in them a renewed commitment to their education, families and society.
In the United States, 17,604 tutors and 52,722 tutees participated in the program since its inception in 1984. During its 13 years in Brazil, 9,561 tutors and 26,975 tutees participated in the program. Overall, more than 106,000 students have been directly impacted by the program in both countries. The key statistic in the program is the dropout rate. With a historic dropout rates of 1.0 percent and 2.2 percent, in the United States and Brazil, respectively, the program is successful in keeping students in school. This compares favorably with attrition figures in Texas of 25 percent to 43 percent and dropout rates in Brazil ranging from 6.9 percent to 13 percent.
Schools can gain great benefit from the program as well, which depends on the willingness of the schools to change. The heart of the program is the concept of valuing youth. Participating schools see the re-incorporation of students considered at risk of dropping out into the educational track as a worthwhile effort and are willing to value them to the point of engaging them with a degree of responsibility.
An elementary school principal summarized: “Sometimes, all it takes is that one person to say: ‘You know what? No, I am not related to you, but I care. I care that in the end you will be a productive member of society and in the end you can contribute.’”
In 2009, IDRA examined the previous 25 years of the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program to glean key lessons for improving the quality of education for all students. The lessons were captured in a publication, Continuities – Lessons for the Future of Education from the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program (Robledo Montecel, 2009), with the voices of youth, teachers, family members and program leaders on why valuing youth is at the heart of school transformation: “If you provide young people with an opportunity to contribute – to themselves, their families, their communities – they will.”
Of course, this willingness is a demonstration of school leadership. This is not a new discovery. IDRA has found this to be the case in different contexts, including implementation of bilingual educational programs, effectiveness of school reforms and also in the success of the Coca‑Cola Valued Youth Program. Another one of the lessons revealed by the program is “to squarely take on attrition, school leaders must inspire innovation, embody engagement, and incorporate actionable knowledge” (Robledo Montecel, 2009).
And one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the need for a program such as the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has been how the tutors’ relationships with their teacher coordinators have flourished. It is clear that these students need an adult in the school setting who will listen to them, support their aspirations, and orient them toward solving daily problems. In the United States, recent surveys have indicated that about half of the students felt chronically disengaged from school (Robledo Montecel, 2009).
By giving students responsibilities, such as helping other students succeed, and providing them with a mentoring relationship with a qualified adult (the teacher coordinator), the Coca‑Cola Valued Youth Program has redefined the school as an essential place for these students to attend to their emotional growth and achieve their educational goals. As a result, schools regain their original role as a place that fosters young people’s intellectual, psychological and educational development, where the new generation acquires the skills to become responsible, engaged adults in a rapidly changing and more complex society.
“My [Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program] teacher coordinator never gave up on me,” explains one tutor. “She kept up her support of me through the bad times as well as the good times. She had faith in me, and I began to have faith in myself. I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to her… and my mom for always being there to lift me up every time I fell. In the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program I showed responsibility by getting up each day to go to school just to attend the program.”
The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has had a remarkable impact improving the educational environment in both the United States and Brazil, as it helped retain more youth in the school system and rekindled hope for a better society. Clearly, the program has represented a turning point for these tutors, their families and the schools.
More information about the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is available online at www.idra.org or at IDRA (210-444-1710).
Robledo Montecel, M. Continuities – Lessons for the Future of Education from the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).
Felix Montes, Ph.D., is an education associate in IDRA Support Services. Linda Cantú, Ph.D., is the project director of the Coca‑Cola Valued Youth Program. Comments and questions may be directed to them via email at email@example.com.
[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2013 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]