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Giving Students Who Struggle a Chance to Graduate

I remember a time when neighbors and communities would lock arms to tackle a cause. A time when young folks who didn’t always have the money for even the simplest of weddings would express a desire to be married. At the sound of their hope to one day give their children the opportunity to grow up in our Brooklyn community, my paternal grandmother would rally the neighbors to throw the best of wedding receptions. Each neighbor pitched in their china, favorite recipes, a few dollars and smiles. The couples laughed, ate and absorbed the community of support.

I see that kind of community in Anchorage.

Community support is especially vital now for the 90 Percent Graduation by 2020 initiative, a collaboration of schools, businesses, nonprofits, parents, students and donors coordinated by United Way of Anchorage in 2006 to raise the Anchorage high school graduation rate to 90 percent. This month, we’re renewing the campaign for 90 Percent Graduation by 2020 support. We aim to rally the community through the next 16 months to the diplomas of May 2020.

Let’s take heart in what we’ve done together – raised the graduation rate 20 points over the past decade from 59 to 80.7 percent. That is undeniable long-term improvement.

And let’s take heart in what we’ve learned together as we’ve zeroed in on what the data tells us works – more collaboration and sharper concentration on what individual students need to succeed, both in and out of the classroom.

We know that 90 Percent Graduation by 2020 has always been a challenge for long-range change, not a cakewalk to the top. We’ve deliberately set the bar high, and we’ve been blessed with partners, donors and teachers who understand that.

Getting up and going to school looks different for each student in Anchorage. For some it’s grabbing clean clothes from yesterday’s folded laundry and for others, it’s hoping that no one notices that you haven’t been able to wash your clothes in a month. What about the child who wants to come to school but can’t because their parent’s addiction hinders that possibility? Clean clothes and a ride to school are easy to take for granted when you have them. When you don’t they can seem beyond reach – until someone, in the spirit of my grandmother, taps the care of neighbors and provides a set of clothes, or change for laundry, or a dependable ride to beat the bell.

Wearing a clean pair of pants or getting to school on a regular basis may seem like small things, but they give children confidence and ease worries about what the school day will bring. Locking arms to support 90 Percent Graduation by 2020 gives even our students who struggle the most a fighting chance to graduate. We’re saying in a clear voice, “We will support ALL of our children.”

So, we will. This year we expanded Community PLUS Schools from eight to 12 primary schools. We will continue to tailor help to struggling students who are chronically absent or disengaged, from counseling to meals to afterschool activities that keep them in school and thriving. So far this school year we’ve served 290 kids – but more than 800 qualify for Community PLUS Schools help.

Back on Track, a partnership of United Way of Anchorage, Covenant House Alaska and the Anchorage School District powered by an AT&T Aspire Grant, has served more than 600 struggling students in grades 9 through 12 through flexible schedules, relentless attention and whatever they need to stay the course. As of Dec. 20, 161 senior Back on Track students have defied long odds to earn their diplomas. It’s estimated hundreds more need that help to graduate.

And with our partner Best Beginnings, families get support to nurture pre-literacy skills and readiness for kindergarten.

We want to reach them all. We are encouraging everyone to look past the labels – bad kid, lazy, lost cause – and join hands with more partners, more donors and more volunteers.

My grandmother never heard of 90 Percent Graduation by 2020, but she taught me how we reach a 90 percent graduation rate. We pull together, we power through setbacks, we’re there when the kids need us. Some of our students don’t have that at home, so we’re the steady hands.

In my old Brooklyn neighborhood, you could count on neighbors for a labor of love and a wedding feast to remember. Here in Anchorage, struggling students count on us for a labor of love and the funding to make that labor possible.

A Back on Track graduate told us “Don’t give up on us.” We won’t. You’re all invited to join us at

Originally published on Sunday, February 3, 2019, in the Anchorage Daily News. Authored by Sonya O. Hunte, Vice President of Education Impact at United Way of Anchorage.