A word from the president: An involved community is essential to student success

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

When our youth succeed, our community succeeds. That is why CIRI supports Anchorage United for Youth, a groundbreaking cross-sector partnership created by United Way of Anchorage that includes more than 40 nonprofit, private and public organizations working together to improve graduation rates, decrease juvenile delinquency and reduce youth substance abuse.

CIRI’s involvement in education efforts and in Anchorage United for Youth runs deep. In 2005, CIRI Vice President Gregory Razo was asked to be one of the founding members of the Tri-Borough Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Policy Team that preceded the current Anchorage United for Youth partnership. The recommendations from this policy team resulted in a new community action model to help our youth. CIRI Legal Manager Michele Christiansen participated by leading the group responsible for coordinating family resources provided by the partner organizations. Since 2006, Razo and Christiansen continue to be actively involved in the leadership team of Anchorage United for Youth.

Anchorage United for Youth has adopted a goal of increasing the high school on-time graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. The overall graduation rate in the Anchorage School District for the 2010/11 school year was 72 percent. The on-time graduation rate for Alaska Native/American Indian students was just above 50 percent. These numbers are unacceptable.

Why should we care that almost half of Alaska Native students are not graduating from high school? Because educational achievement directly correlates with success in virtually every quality-of-life measurement, including employment, income and even life expectancy. On the other hand, a lack of education increases an individual’s propensity to commit crime and partake in substance abuse. High school graduates earn an average of 74 percent more income over their lifetimes than dropouts. Dropouts are twice as likely to commit crimes, and they account for more than 61 percent of prison inmates. Every young person deserves a chance to succeed, and every time we lose one to a life of crime or drug abuse, it costs our community between $1.7 and $2.3 million in criminal justice costs and lost productivity and damages the social fabric of our community in ways that cannot be quantified

Educators in Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s school-within-a-school program confirm what many of us already know: Alaska Native and American Indian students face many difficult challenges, including homelessness, residential transiency and family instability. Many students move back and forth between rural and urban communities, often leaving their support networks behind. Research shows that being part of a caring community and having supportive adults in one’s life is crucial to a student’s success in school.

We must do more to help students stay in school, learn and graduate. Anchorage United for Youth is taking on this challenge, and our community is already seeing positive results: Graduation rates for Alaska Native students enrolled in the Anchorage School District improved by 6.78 percent in 2011 over the previous academic year, and our state’s overall graduation rate has steadily improved since 2005.

There are many things all of us can do as individuals to help create and provide a supportive community for at-risk students. Simply becoming aware of the graduation issue in the Anchorage community is a necessary starting point. Anchorage United for Youth has launched a social marketing campaign aimed at educating the public about the importance of high school graduation and what individuals can do to help students. Young people appreciate and benefit greatly from even small acts of acknowledgement from adults. Sometimes a simple smile can help. So we should all make an effort to do things like learn the names of children in our neighborhoods.

United Way of Anchorage has started pilot programs at Lake Hood and Susitna Elementary schools that provide extra support for students facing challenges to succeeding in school. At CIRI we also recognize how important a good elementary school experience is to future success in high school. That is why CIRI has adopted Muldoon Elementary School and is providing CIRI volunteers as “reading role models” among other activities as part of our commitment to our children and community. These programs and others have opportunities for adults to mentor Alaska Native or American Indian students by helping them with homework, reading skills, with school projects or just by giving them someone to talk to. The commitment can be as little as one hour a week and the program provides training and guidance. You can volunteer or learn more about the Anchorage United for Youth program by calling (907) 263-3821 or by visiting www.90by2020.org.

A bold effort is needed to increase Anchorage’s on-time graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. But it can be done if our community unites to create an environment that supports and helps students meet high academic standards. I am proud of CIRI’s commitment to Anchorage United for Youth. By nurturing students, we can help cultivate the confidence and life skills needed to help them grow into successful, healthy and productive members of our community.