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Anchorage is a stone’s throw from 90% high school graduation rates. But we’re not done.

  • Author: Ed Ulman
    | Opinion
    , Cheri Gillian
    | Opinion
    , Starr Marsett
    | Opinion
    , Deena Bishop
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 10
  • Published March 10

Ashton McCluskey helps fellow graduate Addison Swanson with her graduation cap before commencement ceremonies for Eagle River High School on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

Anchorage is doing better in school.

Our students’ four-year, public high school graduation rate rose to more than 84% in 2019, an increase of more than three points over 2018 and a whopping 25-point gain since the alarm-bell rate of 59% in 2005. The latter number inspired the community collaboration that set the bold 90% Graduation by 2020 goal.

How did we do this?

Together.

Community summits in the early 2000s led about two dozen community partners to say, “Enough. We have to do something different.” They concluded that Anchorage was program-rich but system-poor; we lacked a data-driven, collaborative effort dedicated to the long haul. So, we set about building one.

Leaders from every sector rose to the challenge – the mayor, schools superintendent, business leaders, parents, police, media, religious leaders, advocates, service providers and foundations.

The community pulled together in a big way. Here’s what we learned:

• Long-term change takes long-term commitment. Partners should measure their resolve in years. 90% Graduation by 2020 has had consistent support over three city administrations, four superintendents, and steady turnover in all sectors.

• 2020 is a target date, not the end. We have so much more to do.

• Silos are for grain, not for tackling big problems. We accomplish much more when we share data, resources and ideas and coordinate our effort.

• Be nimble. When evidence calls for change, make it.

• Tailor help to students’ needs. Don’t try to make students fit programs.

The Anchorage School District set bold goals for student performance success; and put the great commitment and expertise of Anchorage’s educators to work on achieving these goals. But schools cannot teach children who do not attend, or who face substantial challenges outside the classroom that significantly impact their ability to learn.

That’s where families and the community needed to step up – get our kids to school ready to seize all opportunities offered to them.

We talk about “the right help to the right student at the right time.” That’s not a buzz phrase or marketing hook. “Right help” is at the heart of the work to help students at risk to be kindergarten-ready, improve attendance and recover high-school credits to graduate. That includes support both in and out of school.

At the elementary level, thousands of chronically absent students received supports such as tutoring, after-school clubs, help with food and transportation, and mentoring. More than 82% of the kids getting help reached ASD attendance goals; outperforming the overall attendance rate for all elementary students.

On the high school level, 351 students have earned their diplomas since 2016 through Back on Track, which offers flexible schedules and curriculum for credit recovery, along with help for out-of-school problems. Back on Track demands a rigorous effort by students making up credits, many of whom navigate challenges ranging from homelessness to substance use to family dysfunction, in addition to work obligations.

Aristotle, a teacher for the ages, said “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The community of Anchorage has both learned and proven the wisdom of those words over the last 15 years. A “whole” greater than the sum of its parts that eventually included more than 1,000 volunteers who all gave time, money, expertise and attention – and gave in an increasingly coordinated, deliberate way.

The result: Not only is the four-year Anchorage high school graduation rate at an all-time high at 84.1%, but the dropout rate is at its lowest point ever and the five-year graduation rate is at 88%. Add GED earners, Job Corps and Alaska Military Youth Academy graduates, and the graduation rate is almost at 90%. As it stands now, our four-year graduation rate is only half a percentage point off the national average.

So, congratulations are in order everyone involved, especially for students, teachers, and families. But we’re not declaring victory. The real goal is not 90 percent graduation but continually improved graduation rates – sustained progress. When we hit 90 percent, we’ll drive on for 91, 92, and beyond. We won’t settle for the middle of the pack. We want to lead the pack, so that our children – and by extension our city – reach their full potential.

To do that we need to remember the lessons we’ve learned and apply them. How do we keep a level playing field for our kids in the one of the most diverse school districts in the United States? As we look beyond 2020, what’s changed in our vision for our children and how do we measure future progress? How do we make sure we continue to collaborate and coordinate, to sustain the “whole” that has brought us this far? How do we fortify early childhood learning in a way that bears fruit 10 years from now?

Those are the questions the 90% Graduation by 2020 Partnership will explore to develop a strategic plan that reaches well beyond 2020. The lessons and partnerships of the past 15 years help us prep for the new decade because it’s true - you never stop learning.

Ed Ulman is CEO and General Manager of Alaska Public Media, and a 90% by 2020 executive team co-chair.

Cheri Gillian is Executive Vice President, Board Secretary and Chief Administrative Officer for First National Bank Alaska, as well as 90% by 2020 executive team co-chair.

Dr. Deena Bishop is superintendent of the Anchorage School District

Starr Marsett is president of the Anchorage School Board.

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