What a diploma means in 21st-century Alaska

In 2005, more than 1,000 kids per year in Anchorage were failing to graduate from high school on time. Today, thanks to a collaboration among community, business and the Anchorage School District, almost 90% of high school seniors are graduating within 5 years of starting high school. That means 750 fewer kids dropping out and facing a life with serious obstacles. So how did this collaboration, called “90% by 2020,” achieve this progress? By setting a bold goal.

A 90%, four-year graduation rate became the moon shot of the “90% Graduation by 2020” initiative that began in 2005, when the rate was 59.6%. Right now we stand at about 81% for the four-year rate. That’s more than a 20 percentage-point increase since 2005. If we include five-year grads, we’re at 86%. Add GED earners, Job Corps and Alaska Military Youth Academy graduates, and we run even closer to 90%.

Ninety percent by 2020 was also a bold step to work differently. A collaboration of families, teachers, students, nonprofits, business leaders and the Anchorage School District agreed to align efforts to break through a low, stagnant graduation rate. One major difference was using a data-driven effort. We collected data that told us which factors influenced high school graduation the most. We found interesting results that led to impactful results. For example:

• We found that the most cost-effective thing we could do, with the biggest statistical impact, was make sure kids show up at kindergarten ready to learn. With the gift of a book each month and tips and encouragement to parents to read to their children from infancy, these youngsters enter kindergarten with a love of reading. More than 1,500 children from low-income neighborhoods are enrolled in these programs.

• We learned that school attendance made the biggest difference from K-8. It may not seem like rocket science, but kids are more likely to stay in school and graduate from high school if they show up ready to learn. Today, we work with teachers at 13 elementary schools to keep chronically absent students in school. We provide practical help like tutoring, transportation, after-school clubs, food, and mentoring that spark their interest and remove barriers to good attendance. Ninety-three percent of students who receive support now meet attendance goals and, in fact, outpace the attendance rate of the overall student population.

• Too many high schoolers buck long odds against a diploma due to hardships from homelessness, family dysfunction, poverty. These students have failed at least one core class, lack credits, miss too much school, and face serious, often heartbreaking challenges that put them at risk. We provide academic credit recovery and tailored, wraparound help — night school, tutoring, housing, eyeglasses, counseling, food, transportation, mentoring — to give them a fighting chance to earn their diplomas and walk the stage with their peers. One hundred and seventy students have graduated. The right help at this critical time makes all the difference for these students.

As we approach 2020, we will be holding community conversations about what a diploma should stand for in the 21st century, and plan for the next decade. Come join us. www.90by2020.org


Damian Bilbao is the VP of Commercial Ventures at BP Alaska and the outgoing chairman of the 90% by 2020 initiative.

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