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A brighter future, thanks to a little help

Rachael Wise is one busy high school student. She's in the marching band, the Junior ROTC and plays on two sports teams – and next year she expects to be the first member of her family to ever graduate from high school.

The poised 17-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., who never forgets to add "ma'am" or "sir" to the end of her sentences, was in New York Monday for NBC's Education Nation summit on improving America's schools. She'll be speaking on a panel, along with educators and policymakers, on Tuesday during the weeklong event at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Rachael is a living example of how a little help at school can go a long way. She was accepted into a program called Communities in Schools (CIS), a national dropout prevention program that targets at-risk kids, sometimes starting as early as elementary school, and helps them stay on track. She traveled to New York with CIS site coordinator Sophia Davis, who works in Rachael's high school.

"We get students who are in poverty-stricken neighborhoods that have some high-risk social factors that deter them from being motivated to stay in school," Davis said. She said foster children, teenage parents, students in low-income and single-parent households, as well as those who struggle with academics and attendance, are their target audience.

Rachael, one of nine children, wants one day to work in military intelligence. She's taken her SATs, and has a handful of colleges in mind that she'll be applying to. She and one of her younger brothers are currently living with their grandmother.

"My grandmother doesn't drive because she's legally blind, so before CIS, visiting a college campus wasn't even an option for me," she said. In fact, Rachael has had few opportunities for travel in general: Her trip to New York was the first time she'd flown.

Recently, Davis took a group of students to D.C. to tour Howard University and George Washington University.

Afterward, "We went to the White House, saw the Smithsonian," Davis said. "By showing them that there's something outside of their school, outside of their neighborhood, it motivates them to go beyond high school."

Founded in Georgia, the nonprofit organization serves more than 2 million young people around the country.

In addition to college tours, CIS holds monthly meetings for their students. Some meetings focus on the college application process – how to sign up for the SATs or ACTs, for example – while others, like CIS's "Dressing For Success Fashion Show" teaches students how to present themselves in professional settings.