By June Sobocinski, Sarah Sledge, and Ciara Johnson
This blog post comes from 90% by 2020, a broad partnership promoting student success in Anchorage, Alaska, and continues our March series on collective impact—an approach that mobilizes the community to form a long-term and permanent solution to a societal problem. See our news article about 90% by 2020, and subscribe to our blogso you never miss a post.
Our community partnership realized early on that to improve student outcomes and graduation rates in Anchorage, organizations and agencies alone couldn’t move the needle very far. We knew that we needed to first build awareness of the situation our community is confronting and, more importantly, we needed to build a community sense of ownership across stakeholder groups that include students.
One of the things we are starting to do is build a powerful youth-engagement component to 90% by 2020 through community conversations, peer outreach teams, and partnership with the Anchorage School District Student Advisory Board. For us, the question is, “What if youth really started getting engaged around this goal? What would that look like?” This is very different from building a programmatic solution or a collaboration across agencies. But, that sense of energizing youth to take action themselves in their own schools in various ways is vital to the direction we’re taking.
For over a year, we’ve worked with three high schools in our community that have struggled with graduation rates. The idea came from the student advisory board, which is a group of students from all the student councils/governments in our school district. They recommended that we bring recent graduates to speak to freshmen as they start high school—in that tough transition period—so they can hear from their peers about why education success matters to them. These graduates also share some of the great supports available that have made a difference to past students—supports like finding adult mentors and getting involved with volunteering and school activities.
This year, at one of the schools, we are piloting a new peer outreach team made up of sophomores and juniors who are conducting surveys of their peers—same-age and incoming students—to find out what’s available at the school to help them succeed, and what kind of advice they want to give to incoming students. In engaging that team to do research and share their findings, the team members will become peer leaders who support freshmen and build a culture of education success in the school. Youth on the peer outreach team represent the diverse populations at their school, so they can really connect with peers whether through sports, clubs, or other activities. They speak different languages and come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. This helps them connect with different students, particularly those who may be struggling or feel disconnected.
In another leadership opportunity, two members of the student advisory board also serve on the 90% by 2020 leadership team. We challenge all of our leadership team members to think as system leaders. Recently, our student representative really understood that, took it to heart, and asked, how can we leverage our student advisory board? How we can leverage the school district? How can we leverage our connection to all the students in school?
We’ve also been working with a youth-serving organization called the Alaska Teen Media Institute that produces public service announcements, as well as other types of radio and video media. They’ve been bringing in recent graduates and graduating seniors to record PSAs of them talking about their successes and what individual people in our community can do to really make a difference. These PSAs will be shared widely in the community, online and through other forums.
Some of our youth-engagement activities also involve parents. We created a “Graduation Station” that can be used at different events, such as a large Kids’ Day event that youth of all ages attend with their parents to learn about different activities and opportunities here in Anchorage. Kids as young as kindergarteners can receive a wristband printed with their high school graduation year. Parents take their pictures wearing a graduation cap and holding their class year sign. We encourage the parents to share the photos on our Facebook page. We also provide materials with tips for helping children get ready for kindergarten, encouraging attendance and other successful habits, and navigating the college-application process. All of this puts a focus on education and creates a community expectation that all of our kids graduate.
The kind of community we all want to live in is one where we link arms and work together to make our home a better place to live. Our own youth can be truly vital partners in this, if we open the door, and invite them in to share their experience, knowledge, wisdom, and energy.
June Sobocinski is Vice President, Education Impact at United Way of Anchorage and Director of the 90% by 2020 Community Partnership. June’s capable team mobilizes cross-sector organizations and individual community members to tackle the complex issue of improving child and youth outcomes by uniting around shared goals, strategically aligning through collaborative action, donating, sharing the message, and volunteering.
Sarah Sledge is Director of Operations for Education Impact at United Way of Anchorage and part of the backbone team for the 90% by 2020 Community Partnership. She and her team work together to mobilize cross-sector organizations and individual community members to tackle the complex issue of improving child and youth outcomes in Anchorage.
Ciara Johnson is Project Manager at Anchorage Youth Development Coalition, an organization dedicated to promoting positive youth development through collaboration and professional development for youth serving organizations.