'90 by 2020' report shows progress in raising graduation rates

The effort to ensure that Anchorage’s youth graduate from high school and go on to college or careers is focused on bringing together resources and partners from across the city.

The United Way of Anchorage launched its 90 percent by 2020 campaign as a way to affect systemic change in the city, with an eye toward seeing 90 percent of Anchorage youths graduate from high school by 2020 and beyond.

In July, the United Way released its 2014 report on the effort and according to the report, the graduation rate was 76 percent in 2013, up from 73 percent in 2012, and from 72 percent in 2011.

The initiative looks at the entire educational experience from cradle to career, and uses data and analyses to determine where to focus resources.

The report looks at several metrics that feed into graduation rates — 67 percent of Anchorage’s eighth graders were proficient in math in 2013, which is considered a strong predictor for future graduation, and 71 percent of ninth graders were prepared for graduation that year.

The effort seeks to align partners and resources in the community toward a common goal: graduation rates and youth preparation to enter the workforce, said United Way of Anchorage President Michele Brown. That impacts life for everyone, she noted.

“The data is really clear,” Brown said. “The higher a community’s education level, pretty much the better off every other quality of life indicator is.”

The effort is not just collaboration between nonprofits and the Anchorage School District, however. It also draws in the business community.

Alaska Communications Director of Corporate Communications Heather Cavanaugh, who serves on the 90 by 2020 leadership team, said the initiative is important for local businesses because it’s about the future workforce.

“The outcomes that they’re focused on matter so much to our community, to our economy, to the future of our city and our state,” she said.

She also noted that the alignment focus was an exciting part of the effort.

“It’s really cool to see so many organizations coming together to achieve that,” Cavanaugh said.

Aligning the city’s resources strategically can help bring together everyone who is working on little pieces of the larger puzzle.

June Sobocinski, vice president for the organization’s education impact, said that coordinating the effort was one of the reasons the United Way embarked on the overall initiative.

Sarah Sledge, the director of operations for the United Way’s education impact, said that alignment uses resources more efficiently than if each organization is competing with one another, and gives contributors a sense that every donation is multiplied because of the coordination.

Come September, the project will take on a 12-month plan that’s still in the works to achieve several short-term goals, Sledge said.

The initiative has identified several targets: kindergarten readiness, eighth grade math and high school graduation.

For each of those areas, the United Way and its partners have developed a network to address the issue and help boost student performance.

Those priorities were chosen in November 2013 by the effort’s leadership team, and the networks are developing strategies to target and improve the city’s performance in each arena.

Each of the networks also has a business partner to help focus its work.

Alaska Communications provided one for the eighth grade math proficiency network, Cavanaugh said.

‘The hope from 90 by 2020 was to have a business process expert on each team, and so we happen to have a department in our organization that focuses on that and has formal training in business process,” she said.

The business partners help drill down on what the data said, focusing on measurement and looking at how to get the best results.

Sobocinski said integrating businesses into the initiative has particularly helped with the data side of the endeavor.

“They just inject this whole planning and implementation rigor,” Sobocinski said.

Sobocinski said a business partner helped the kindergarten network look at student performance data and other criteria known to affect academic performance — such as socioeconomics — and then selected schools to target based on that information, as well as by looking at which schools had possible partners.

Improving kindergarten readiness is largely focused on neighborhood outreach and work before the students arrive at school, she said.

The high school graduation network is still developing its actions for the coming school year, but Sobocinski said the network will work to develop the soft skills needed for careers, as well ensure students graduate, and will try to avoid duplicating the work done by other networks.

The initiative has already targeted attendance with support from business partners, which will continue for the 2014-15 school year, Sobocinski said.

Another effort will target math performance at a cohort of schools — College Gate Elementary, Airport Heights Elementary, Lake Otis Elementary, and Wendler Middle School — Sledge said.

Those are called Community Plus schools, and the United Way will work to connect students at those schools with the community supports they need, whether that’s tutoring, transportation or other assistance for the family.

Needs will be identified based on state-based assessments, universal screening and input from teachers, nurses and others at the schools.

The effort also includes a school-wide initiative to get everyone focused on science, engineering, technology and math — or STEM — efforts.

Last year, the United Way launched a pilot effort to match students with community supports. From that, the organization learned how to best track information and define responsibilities, Sledge said. Based on feedback from principals, the effort is math-focused this year.

Brown said the use of networks to systemically address an issue in the city is an approach that can work for issues beyond graduation rates.

“If we can crack that method of working together, this community can solve any issue that comes its way,” Brown said.

08/14/2014 - 2:41pm