When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Anchorage economy overnight, no one responded faster than United Way of Anchorage. Within days of the March order to hunker down and before the first stimulus checks went out, United Way had raised and
put to work hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep Alaskans housed, fed, and hopeful. The need continues, and we’ve expanded the partnership working to meet the need.
Together with a community of donors, partners, advocates and volunteers, United Way of Anchorage practices a different charity model than many. United Way aims to do good that both meets the need of the hour and reaches across generations. It’s called community impact. By focusing on fixing systems, setting goals, building networks, and sharing accountability for results we strive to deliver population-level changes that improve the health, education and financial stability of every person in Anchorage.
The same power of collaboration that sped our response to the pandemic has sustained our long-range work like the 90% Graduation by 2020 initiative that has increased the four-year high school graduation rate from 59 percent in 2005 to 84 percent in 2019. That means more of our young people begin adulthood ready for the work force, further education or both. Back on Track, a partnership of United Way, the Anchorage School District and Covenant House Alaska, is the part of 90 by 2020 that helps struggling high school students earn their diplomas. Here’s an illustration of how Back on Track works:
One of nine siblings living with their grandparents, Ane was struggling. “I didn’t graduate. I blame myself for the crowd I hung out with, for skipping classes … I felt like giving up and just not caring for school anymore,” said Ane. After her grandfather died, she decided to make a change. “I looked at my grandmother and my family one day and thought to myself: I deserve to make them proud. Seeing them happy is what I live for.”
Making them proud was a full-time job and then some. She joined Back on Track while she was the primary caregiver for her grandmother. That meant up at 5 a.m., to make breakfast and make sure grandma took her medications. Then school at East. Then a Back on Track evening class at Covenant House, along with playing piano for evening services at her church. Then home to fix dinner for her grandmother. Homework came last and late.
When her grandmother was hospitalized in intensive care, Ane stopped going to school to be with her. After she got some help for her grandmother, she found she’d missed too many days to return to school. Back on Track teacher Barb Dexter told her that door was still open and to come in – that very day.
“I was beyond grateful and I actually cried from how excited I was,” Ane says. “Leaving the hospital that day I told my grandma that this is for her and I would not let her down.” She didn’t. She doubled down to earn her diploma. Now she works as a caregiver. Long-term, Ane wants to become a pediatric nurse.
Today, more than 400 students – many facing tangible challenges that would stop you cold in your tracks – have graduated high school thanks to the 90% Graduation by 2020 community partnership led by United Way of Anchorage.
The 90% Graduation by 2020 partnership is one example of what building better systems has done to effect change in the area of education.
That didn’t happen by chance.
It took a decade of attention and muscle to collaborate, cheerlead, cajole, and align the efforts of many into a coordinated practice to get the right support to the right child at the right time from early childhood to senior year. With a focus on struggling households and students, particularly those economically disadvantaged, the 90% Graduation by 2020 partners are innovating and stepping up to continue to provide the right supports to the right child at the right time to remain engaged with school and make steady progress in this new, virtual environment.
That same approach of clear goals, a common methodology, constant adaptation, and cross-sector partnerships is being brought to bear to improve the lives of those experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness and instability as well.