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Our view: United Way looks for partners to boost graduation rates

The kids at Begich Middle School spelled it out on Thursday. That's 90 by 2020, as in a 90 percent high school graduation rate in Anchorage for the class of 2020.

Ambitious? For sure.

"Five years ago when we started it was 60 (percent)," Michele Brown, head of United Way of Anchorage, said Thursday.

For the class of 2011, it was 72 percent. That's progress, but still leaves a quarter of Anchorage high school students short of graduating, at least here.

Statistics are not perfect; while Anchorage has become more of a settled community in recent years, the city still has a large transient population.

But the numbers tell us that our graduation rate needs improvement. Young people who graduate from high school stand a much better chance of success in the community by almost any measure.

So Thursday's exercise at Begich was both a physical expression of the goal and of the support it will take to get there. The kids who took to the field at Begich were joined by about 200 adults. Brown and her colleagues hope Anchorage students, especially those with problems, have plenty of adult support to see them through.

That's where a recent initiative of Anchorage United for Youth comes in. That United Way-sponsored coalition of Anchorage groups has been coordinating help for five years now, with the aim of making groups and individuals more effective in getting help to kids who need it -- and identifying kids at risk of losing their way as soon as possible.

"The class of 2020 is in third grade today," Brown said. So this fall Anchorage United for Youth has added pilot projects at Susitna and Lake Hood elementary schools to its ongoing programs. The idea is to have everyone -- teachers, counselors, aides, parents, Campfire staff, volunteers -- keeping an eye out for signs that any student is having trouble, from disciplinary problems to academic sliding to absence.

Then the individuals or organizations who can best help will come into play -- whether it's help for a student's family, some mentoring, tutoring, or just another good adult to be part of a kid's life.

As Brown said, it could be as simple as reading with a student, or maybe a noon duty guard keeps watch on three or four kids and knows how they're doing.

"You're just there to be a supporting adult. ... You're there to enrich their lives and let them know people care about them."

The idea is to have more of the community involved so kids feel connected. Brown recalled neighborhoods that some of us grew up in, where the adults kept watch on all the kids.

"We don't really have that fabric so much in the neighborhoods now. So we're going to create it."

Ideally, she said, "we're going to have them so surrounded they're gonna have to work harder to drop out than to stay in school."

This is good work. Those who want to help can call Sue Brogan at 263-3821, go to the website at 90by2020.org to share ideas or go to LiveUnitedAnchorage.org.

BOTTOM LINE: 90 percent graduation rate? Community will need to be in school.