General Colin Powell at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Larry French—Getty Images
April 13, 2017 6:11 AM EDT
Claire Howorth is an assistant managing editor at TIME

The retired four-star general and former Secretary of State is the founding chair of America’s Promise Alliance. The nonprofit, aimed at improving the lives of children, is holding a summit for its 20th anniversary on April 18 in New York City.

What is the single most important thing we can do for our kids?

Research shows that the presence of stable, trusting adult relationships in the lives of young people is a key factor — perhaps the key factor — in keeping them in school. Children need to get a high-quality education, avoid violence and the criminal-justice system and gain jobs. But they deserve more. We want them to learn not only reading and math but fairness, caring, self-respect, family commitment and civic duty.

What have been the watershed moments in terms of progress and regression?

The high school graduation rate, now 83.2%, is higher than it’s ever been. High-quality early-childhood programs and health coverage have expanded, and the number of mentoring relationships for at-risk youth has risen dramatically. That progress is encouraging, but it’s not evenly distributed.

Are your efforts more necessary under the new Administration?

We hope and expect that it will make opportunity for all young people a real priority. Standing in support of children is something we should all be able to get behind, regardless of party affiliation.

This appears in the April 24, 2017 issue of TIME.

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