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Future depends on poor children, says Boys & Girls Clubs’ retired CEO

by Ed Cohen

February 15, 2013

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 The long-time CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America says
“staggering” consequences face the United States if current trends in education
continue, especially the trend of minority children dropping out of high school
at the rate of 50 percent.

In a speech at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza
College of Business, Roxanne Spillett, the clubs’ CEO emerita, said the
dropout rate takes on added significance given demographers’ projection that
historic minorities will constitute the majority of the U.S. population by mid-century.

Appearing Feb. 8, 2013, as part of the College’s Ten Years
Hence speaker series, Spillett said 1.2 million U.S. children now drop out of
high school every year, 63 percent of them before they even finish 10th
grade. The quality of students who gradate is also worrying, she said, because achievement
tests rank the United States 14th in the world in reading, 17th
in science and 25th in mathematics.

“[T}he consequences of not addressing what I just described
are staggering,” she said. “Our future work force is at risk, our global
competitiveness is at risk, our national security is at risk. And probably for
the first time in our country’s history, our future economic security is going
to depend on how well poor children do.”

Spillett retired from the Boys & Girls Clubs at the end
of 2011 after 35 years with the organization, the last 16 as CEO. Under her
leadership, the number of clubs grew from 1,800 to 4,000 and revenues more than
tripled to $1.5 billion. For more than a decade she has also taught as an
adjunct faculty member in Notre Dame Master of Nonprofit Administration
program.

Boys & Girls Clubs serve children ages 6 to 18, traditionally
in low-income neighborhoods. The retired CEO described how the organization has
expanded in recent years to fill gaps created by phenomena such as the growth
of single-parent households and the deployment of military-reservist parents to
combat areas overseas.

In the 1990s, the organization opened its first five clubs
in public housing projects. An independent review later found that crime, drug
use and vandalism in the projects all fell and parental involvement in
children’s activities increased, she said. Today there are more than 400 Boys
& Girls Clubs in public housing, more than 200 on Native American lands and
450 on military bases, she said.

Spillett, who continues to help raise money for the
organization, said club officials are now meeting with school system
superintendents to suggest that Boys & Clubs be incorporated into the
design of new schools in poor and dangerous neighborhoods. That way children will
have a safe place to go before and after school, when their parents may not be around.

The former CEO recalled a ceremony in 1997 at the opening of
the 2,000th club, the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Club in Las
Vegas, home of the former tennis great. Former U.S. Army General Colin Powell was
a guest speaker. Spillett said Powell stepped to the lectern and for several
moments simply glanced around the room. Finally he spoke.

“He said, ‘You see all these bricks, you see all this
lighting, all his wiring, all this roofing, all this insulation? You know what?
It takes about this much stuff to build a jail.’ And then he said it’s time to
stop building jails and to start building our children in places like this.”

The Ten Years Hence series is sponsored by the O'Brien-Smith
Leadership Program, made possible by a generous endowment from William H.
O'Brien (ND '40) and his wife, Dee. The O’Brien-Smith Program endowment
provides an opportunity for students and faculty to interact with distinguished
leaders from business, government and nonprofit sectors.