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Of the 28 seniors in the Next Gen program in 2018, all graduated from high schools that typically average only a 75 percent graduation rate.

Lighting Paths to Opportunity

January 3, 2019
In Atlanta, a community unites to help underserved high school students chart a course for education, career and life.

Amadou Diallo, 2018 valedictorian of Atlanta’s Therrell High School, is adjusting well to college life.

The Georgia Tech freshman studies electrical engineering and counts in his corner a “strong support system rooting for me throughout my new journey.”

That support system? Next Generation Men and Women, an organization focused on closing the opportunity gap for underserved high school students across Atlanta.

Founded by three metro area teachers, Next Gen partners with under-resourced high schools to create student cohorts that begin in the 9th grade and remain together until graduation.

Cohorts meet twice a week after school, where teachers and college mentors guide students through curriculum rooted in personal identity, post-secondary exploration, professional and leadership development, as well as college and career planning.

So far, the results are encouraging.

Of the 28 seniors in the Next Gen program in 2018, all graduated from high schools that typically average only a 75% graduation rate.

Phil Olaleye, Next Gen’s executive director, credits the success so far to more than 340 hours of after-school professional support, including exposure to 25 or more Atlanta-based companies and colleges.

Next Gen provides helps close the 'opportunity gap' for students by connecting them with mentors and professionals, including at a recent women's networking event.

Through monthly trips to local companies and colleges, Next Gen offers students hands-on experience with various professional paths and work environments.

This, Phil explains, helps students gain “a better sense of who they want to become by exploring their interests and personal identity, and connecting it to a broader world of college and career possibilities. We believe that if every youth can see it and experience it, they can become it.”

Amadou agrees.

“Next Gen showed me a brand new side of Atlanta that I never knew existed. It connected me with multiple professionals who want to see me succeed.”

Amadou Diallo (center) was 2018 valedictorian at Atlanta’s Therrell High School and is now a student at Georgia Tech.

Next Gen creates personalized plans for each student around one of four pathways: Two-year college, four-year college, gainful employment or military service. Students choose their track and are then given customized tools and support to pursue it.

“I always knew that I wanted to go to a four-year college, but I didn’t know how I would get there,” Amadou explains. “This is really where Next Gen came in — from stuff as small as how to tie a tie, to help with our college essays, to visiting Bank of America and learning how to correctly budget our money. Small stuff like that is really helping me a lot today.”

A winner of the Ambitious Ideas Challenge, a Walton Family Foundation-supported initiative championing Atlanta-area nonprofits that drive community transformation, Next Gen is now taking its work to the next level.

With the additional funds, NextGen is organizing a stakeholder summit in mid-2019 for the hundreds of professionals who volunteer to participate in the students’ monthly exposure trips.

The gathering will explore new ways to more fully leverage this strong community interest so that more students benefit. “We want to create a space that connects the demand within the education space to the leaders who are pushing innovative plans,” says Phil.

Next Gen students perform community service at an Atlanta-area food bank.

As Next Gen expands its work through new schools and partnerships, Phil believes the benefits will continue to extend both ways.

The students, he says, have valuable interactions with local business and other community leaders. "These are kids who live and dwell in neighborhoods that don’t have as many resources and opportunities as other parts of the city.”

And the professionals also expand their horizons. “It’s often the first time they’re able to interact in a meaningful way with students who might come from a very different background,” Phil adds.

For many students from low-income backgrounds, even local professional opportunities can feel foreign and unattainable.

Yet Next Gen and its expanding village of volunteers regularly “come up close and personal with students who are incredibly talented, curious and have so much potential bubbling beneath the surface,” Phil says. By coming together as a community, the "city too busy to hate” is bridging the gap.

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