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Inspiration + Aspiration = Motivation

Helping kids get back on track to graduate


Photos provided by United Way of Anchorage

Who remembers high school and all of the classes you endured? You likely maneuvered through a diverse curriculum and swath of subjects. Oh, so many subjects. Not to mention social interaction and the emotional ebb and flow of peer connectivity. Toss in the computer age and the growth of social media, and high school becomes a whirlwind of data, burgeoning intellect, and social maturation, all swirling through a torrent of adolescence.

Whether or not you enjoyed your math and science classes, you’ll likely find that, you’ve benefited from what you learned during those hours of lessons. From secretary and store cashier to bank teller, nurse, and engineer, an understanding of math is vital to professional success. Then there are basic scientific tenets that complement myriad jobs and personal efforts and may not even be recognized for their utility. We need science for everything from weather interpretation (What’s the temperature today?) to vehicle repair and measuring temperatures for cooking and baking. The aviation, medical, engineering, and construction trades, among others, are all dependent upon science.

Nearly all subjects in our secondary education curriculum have practical uses, which is why education and graduation are critical steps toward securing gainful employment. All children should go to school and learn. This is a global directive. The expectation is even enshrined in our state’s constitution. Yet completing a basic education (K–12) is not just about honoring family, intellectual growth, and the pride of accomplishments. It’s also tangible. It’s about future employment, income, and the ability to provide for one’s self and family. The community in which a gainfully employed citizen works is also rewarded, making education integral to business.

Odds are if you’re reading this article you’ve at least graduated from high school and can appreciate the pleasant and painful gauntlet of 9th through 12th grades. Do you remember the ultimate sense of inspiration that accompanied your achievement? It’s a remarkably empowering feeling to graduate.

But what if you don’t graduate? What if you lack the tools or time to finish high school, earn a diploma, and prepare for the job market? Where are the cheers, praise, and coveted career opportunities for those who drop out of high school?

You can guess the answer. They simply aren’t there.


Enter Aspire

AT&T is a household name when it comes to telephony and phone service. Alaskans depend on AT&T’s cell service across the state. With more than 500 employees in Alaska, and operation and retail centers statewide, the company thrives on community engagement.

One community program that has made national news, and appears to be making a remarkable difference in graduation rates is the Aspire Grant. Billed as an education initiative, the grant targets the mobilization of learning, career skill development, networking through educator mentorship, and direct academic support to earn a diploma.

In the fall of 2016, it was announced that United Way of Anchorage would receive $750,000 to support its “Back on Track” initiative in partnership with the Anchorage School District and Covenant House.

“We have a long history of investing in projects that promote learning opportunities,” says Shawn Uschmann, AT&T Alaska’s director of external affairs. “We truly believe there may be no better indicator of future success, whether for an individual or in communities across the nation, than educational achievement. That’s why Aspire is making a difference in Alaska.”

Uschmann explains the $750,000 was part of a $10 million national initiative, and only eighteen recipients were selected with Alaska’s award nearly double the next highest grant in other states.

“Young people need a high school diploma to stay on track for college and later career success. AT&T has a huge stake in making sure we have an educated workforce,” he adds.

Laura Brown, senior director of communications for United Way of Anchorage, adds that the vision and message from all of the participants in the Aspire programs is recognition of the importance of businesses and the community in supporting our children through graduation and as they start out in the workforce.

United Way recognizes graduation rates impact the economy, the availability of skilled workers, crime rates, and the Anchorage economy. Through AT&T’s Aspire Grant and funding of the “Back on Track” initiative, at-risk students can recover lost high school course credits. Petroleum company, BP Alaska, is injecting an additional $30,000 for costs not covered by the grant.

The 90% by 2020 Partnership supports the Aspire directive. According to its website, more than forty of Anchorage’s business, education, nonprofit, and community leaders have joined forces to drive a 90 percent graduation rate in Anchorage by 2020, with United Way of Anchorage providing backbone support to bring participants together, build public will, mobilize funding, and engage volunteers.” To help show grads the community is behind them, United Way and the 90% by 2020 Partnership honor graduating students through Grad Blitz (see sidebar). For kids at risk, knowing that people want them to succeed and are supporting their effort is key to their future success.


Covenant House—Empower Knowledge with Compassion

Most Alaskans, particularly in Anchorage and Mat-Su, have heard of Covenant House. Its name is synonymous with support and safe haven for homeless youths, while typically limited in resources and funding to perform such vital services.

Unfortunately, the annual number of clients walking through the facility’s doors is rising. Worse yet, the depth in circumstance and region, from abuse to drug addiction, is staggering.

Carlette Mack, the organization’s acting CEO, cites the nonprofit’s website as a resource, with statistics indicative of a growing problem. Each year, approximately 2 million youth experience homelessness in the nation, with more than 5,000 living on the streets. Covenant House, which has a shelter capacity of sixty beds, reached full capacity this year and consistently reaches its client ceiling, even with one hundred employees providing support. In 2016, 2,300 youths were served with even more waiting for the opportunity.

Covenant House’s vision is to protect Alaska’s youth. A guiding mantra is that homeless kids have the right to safe shelter, food, guidance, and education. Particularly with regard to the education component, the governing principles include immediacy, sanctuary, communication, structure, and choice.

“We have kids coming into our facility who have suffered neglect, trauma, malnutrition, abuse and abandonment, and sadly, sometimes all of the above,” says Mack. “That’s where the Aspire Grant, through AT&T, Anchorage School District, and United Way, is making such a profound impact on children that have essentially been forgotten and now have hope and resources to complete a high school diploma.”

Mack explains Covenant House has had a daytime education program and curriculum for more than twenty-five years through their partnership with the Anchorage School District’s “Child in Transition” program, but that wasn’t effective for teen residents who work during the day.

“Our focus is helping educate our residents on the fundamentals of financial independence, successful employment and careers, and basic life skills interwoven between income and work,” adds Mack. “The hitch remains how to accomplish instructing on these life skills and rudiments with a minimal to non-existent budget.”

Mack views the $750,000 Aspire Grant as a lifeline to enhanced education opportunities for the community’s youth, particularly in the funding of new evening courses. When students have to balance work, family, and education, the evening class model is the most efficient path toward graduation.


Anchorage School District—

Always a Team Player

Dave Mayo-Kiely is the coordinator for Anchorage School District’s (ASD) Child in Transition/Homeless Project. Since 2009, he’s been working within the district, and alongside nonprofits like Covenant House, to ensure kids have the academic and career-building opportunities to thrive. Prior to his position with ASD, Mayo-Kiely worked in youth development, human services, and within advocacies preventing and ending homelessness.

He explains that his program and the Aspire Grant’s purpose are critically important in affording essential services to homeless students. ASD covers the gamut for these high-risk (of dropping out) students, from transportation to school to emotional and logistical support services, even providing backpacks and school supplies, as well as winter gear for elementary kids. The classroom and academic dimension of the support are where Aspire and Covenant House make their impact.

Mayo-Keily says United Way of Anchorage led the application process for the Aspire Grant in 2015. ASD has partnered with Covenant House since its inception in the early 1970s. He notes the grant can’t be used for school district personnel compensation; that’s where the additional funds from BP Alaska helped out. The Covenant House classroom, with day classes, and now the evening class facilitated through the Aspire monies, is part of ASD’s Anchorage Vocational Academic Institute of Learning (AVAIL) program.

AVAIL represents an alternative high school focusing on students who have dropped out of the ASD entirely. The age range is sixteen to nineteen, with a maximum capacity of sixty-five students. The website for AVAIL says that it is “designed to help students return to the educational system and obtain skills for employment with an emphasis on earning a high school diploma.” Listed business partners include Alaska Club, Midnight Sun Café, Purnell Photography, and Wells Fargo.

Mayo-Keily says the new evening class offers students who are employed during the day the opportunity to complete their credits and receive career-goal mentorship. Three ASD teachers come to Covenant House in the evenings, after they complete a day’s work in their respective schools. The students use Apex, an online course for credit recovery and exit exam remediation. The students are supported with transportation, supplies, a computer in the classroom, glasses, clothing, if needed, and a meal at the Covenant House dining room during their evening studies. The classroom seats twenty and laptops are supplied through Aspire funding. Quizzes and tests are given through Apex, and overseen by ASD teachers and Mayo-Keily.

“We’ve already graduated seven students between January and March of 2017 thanks to the evening class funded by the Aspire Grant,” says Mayo-Keily. “It’s a huge impact. There are students that get close to graduating, and then they don’t or can’t finish for various reasons. This program is a great way to get kids to graduate and encourage them to transition into the workforce having earned their diploma.”


Education Support Making a Difference in the Economy

It’s clear that corporate support of educational programs generates benefits throughout the community. The genesis and ultimate disbursement of the Aspire funds could even be a case study for other businesses as they seek innovative ways to encourage graduation and employment of Alaskan youths.

Covenant House hired a case manager for its new evening courses in November 2016, and that manager has been working since the start of the 2017 semester to ensure the classes and curriculum function effectively, alongside ASD teachers who instruct the students. And their efforts are producing results.

As of the beginning of April, more than fifty students have enrolled in the program, with more signing up each week.

“We really rely on our community to support our youth, especially in these tough economic times,” says Mack. “Through Aspire funding and AT&T’s generous help, youth residents at Covenant House suffering from serious trauma and drug addiction are refocusing on learning and accomplishment. Their scholastic achievements are empowering esteem and ambition, which in turns strengthens Alaska’s commerce and labor workforce development.”

Graduation Blitz 2017

Graphic provided by United Way of Anchorage

United Way of Anchorage and the 90% by 2020 Partnership believe that all kids should be ready, successful, and prepared for life. To further that belief, we’ve set a goal of reaching a 90 percent graduation rate for Anchorage high school students by the year 2020. We have partnered with individuals, businesses, and organizations community-wide to work with schools and families to find solutions to the issues that undermine student performance.

Over the past decade, with your help, graduation rates in Anchorage increased from 59 percent to 80 percent, thanks in part to a groundswell of community support for our youth.

To help bolster that commitment we’re blitzing our community for the third consecutive year with messages of support and pride for our graduates. Grad Blitz is our way of helping honor the class of 2017 with messages of support and pride for all of our graduates, from Chugiak to Girdwood, and let the business community show we are proud of their accomplishment and inspire future grads by reinforcing the message that graduation is an important milestone we value as a community.

Join the Grad Blitz movement from April 26 through May 20 by displaying a poster congratulating the class of 2017. Snap a photo of colleagues, family, and friends with the Grad Blitz image and post it on social media with the hashtag #2017ANCGRADS. With three easy steps we’ll show current and future high school graduates that we recognize and appreciate all the hard work and dedication it takes to make it to graduation day.

Grad Blitz posters are available at United Way offices starting April 25; there are also graphics at www.liveunitedanc.org/gradblitz.

Working together we will continue to raise the graduation rate and get our youth on the path to success.  

This article first appeared in the May 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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