ANCHORAGE – May marks the beginning of summer in Alaska and the end of a long road for the state’s high school seniors. Anchorage alone will see around 3,100 high school graduates in the upcoming weeks, according to the Anchorage School District.
With a city-wide graduation rate of 80.2 percent, one out of every five students still aren’t getting to the graduation stage. With so many students still failing to get there, many community leaders, organizations, schools, teachers and parents are facing a tough question: What more can be done to get students their diplomas and what is holding them back?
Multiple organizations say the same thing: Each student has a story. With a “meet them where they are” mentality, adults are trying to understand the circumstances of the diverse lives of Anchorage’s youth and create unique solutions to get them to the finish.
“I would say when we look at the rates and how they’ve improved, and we have a lot of practices in place, it comes down to the intentional connection and [the] approach to working with the students at their levels individually,” said ASD superintendent Ed Graff.
Through collaboration with the 90% by 2020 Community Partnership, the school district is raising awareness about the importance of the role community members play in supporting students, including students whose needs may fall outside of academics.
“It is a public responsibility to support our youth and to ensure that we create the type of environment and community within our state that we want,” Graff said. “I think that there’s absolutely becoming more and more understanding and awareness that this is a shared responsibility that we have.”
Formed around 2013, the 90% by 2020 initiative brings together organizations, businesses and community partners to focus on getting more students to graduation day. Through research, the partnership has been able to identify key times in a student’s education where they need extra support, leading to the creation of kindergarten ready, eighth grade math, and high school graduation support networks.
Research from the partnership shows that while 85 percent of dropouts occur during the junior and senior years of high school, ninth grade is the critical year for keeping students on track for graduation.
Jann Mylet of the United Way of Anchorage works on community building and communications for the 90% by 2020 partnership. She said research shows that both in Anchorage and nationally, students and parents are facing many hurdles outside of the classroom, including lack of access to healthcare, steady housing, food and lack of adult support.
“It can even just be one stable, anchoring relationship that really is what teens need to be able to succeed and get through,” she said.
The partnership aims to change these factors by enlisting Anchorage businesses, nonprofit organizations, service providers, the school district, community members and families to work together to create “collective impact,” a catch phrase meaning streamlined, organized efforts to work toward better attendance and celebrations of graduates like this year’s Graduation Blitz.
The United Way acts as the “backbone organization,” Mylet said. The Municipality of Anchorage has stepped in to act as a facilitator.
George Martinez is special assistant to Mayor Ethan Berkowitz on education, youth development, diversity and economic development. He said it’s important to note these issues require integrated, sustainable solutions.
“What we saw was the opportunity to — with mayor led initiatives and energy — to strategically realign a lot of the resources and community partners that had been already operating,” Martinez said. “But with a sense of uplift because of the focus the mayor has put on this.”
With a “cradle to career” pipeline that includes early literacy initiatives and the reinstatement of the Youth Advisory Commission, the municipality is hoping to engage youth early and often, Martinez said. To reinstate the commission, an ordinance was rewritten to say the youth will offer counsel on issues from a youth perspective.
“They read that and said, ‘So you really want our input? You really want our voices to be heard?’” Martinez said. “And the administration said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Many studies show graduation is not only important for students, but that communities and states have much at stake as well. Nationally, high school graduation is associated with higher incomes, lower criminal activity and lower welfare receipt.
In a 2006, a Columbia University study showed that moving just one student from dropout status to graduate status would yield a public benefit of $209,100 in higher government revenues and lower government spending.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002, 61 percent of inmates in the nation’s state and federal prisons, as well as local jails, lacked a high school diploma.
REL Northwest, a research and development firm focused on improving education, worked with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development to figure out what happened to Alaska students after they left school by graduating or by dropping out. The firm tracked the transition of 40,000 Alaska students from high school between 2005 to 2008.
Havala Hanson, coauthor of the study, said it found two-thirds of students graduated high school, confirming state graduation rates of the time, and most enrolled in college or entered the Alaska workforce. While young women, white and urban students were more likely to enroll in postsecondary education, their Alaska Native and rural peers were less likely to pursue further education. After factoring in socioeconomic backgrounds and performance levels, Hanson said they were able to theorize that by addressing outside factors, the state would see more college-bound seniors.
“Essentially that means that if we can resolve some of the disparities that we see in the secondary level and before that, we would be likely to see more students choosing to enroll into [post] secondary education after high school,” she said.
One major takeaway for students and their families, Hanson said, is researchers noticed students’ wages increased substantially after graduation. Most students saw what she called a “wage bonus” upon graduating, which was especially significant among the Alaska Native population.
“We saw high school graduation being associated with a 44 percent increase in early career wages for Alaska Native men,” she said, adding that Alaska Native young women saw a 14 percent wage increase after earning a diploma.
As many parents, teachers and students get ready to celebrate graduations throughout the month, 20 percent of young people in Anchorage will leave school without graduating. With continued efforts and community support, graduation rates may continue to rise, but whether the municipality will reach the 90 percent goal by the end of the decade remains to be seen.
Published on KTVA.com on May 9, 2016.
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