Published June 28, 2019, by Michele Brown
It’s about 340 miles as the planes fly from Anchorage to the Kodiak Island village of Akhiok. Measured in lifestyle, the distance may be even greater. But there’s no distance between the village of 52 and Alaska’s largest city in what United Way and its partners aim to achieve in the 90% Graduation by 2020 initiative.
The story of Akhiok graduate Denise Kalmakoff is told in “Meet an Alaska graduating class of one” by Anchorage Daily News multimedia journalist Marc Lester. This is recommended summer reading, an inspiring account of how family, school and community work together to help a daughter launch her dreams, and how that seems as natural as breathing in a village with a school of 13 students.
Unite a strong family, no matter what its size, with capable, caring and creative teachers in a community dedicated to the success of its children, and you’ve made a home – home that extends beyond family and the house you live in. That sense of home gives sons and daughters the drive to succeed and the heart to venture far beyond home if that’s where their spirit and passion take them.
That doesn’t happen automatically in Akhiok any more than it does in Anchorage. The connections that nourished Denise are personal and take work, from the bond of love with her single mom to the friendship of the mayor who taught Denise how to drive and made sure she had new clothes in hard times. Sometimes all the connections, all the ways people work together, are easier to see on a village scale.
In Anchorage, we do this the same way, but we can’t always see it. Degrees of separation may steal the personal touch of a helping hand in a city of 300,000. At scale, there’s the risk that we see programs instead of people, institutions instead of home, agencies instead of names. Graduation rates? Isn’t that the job of schools and nonprofits? Aren’t some nonprofits working to boost the numbers?
Yes, but all the partnerships and organizations don’t substitute for personal decisions to help. In Anchorage, that decision is no less personal than in Akhiok. Partnerships and smart systems don’t take the personal out of that help. They provide a multiplier effect for the one-on-one, day-by-day practical help that makes the difference for struggling students, the difference that comes from the feeling of home.
We’ve learned during the 90% Graduation by 2020 initiative to tailor help to students, rather than expect students to fit neatly into programs. The right help to the right student at the right time reads like a mantra but works as a method. So, a student working a job to help his siblings gets a wake-up call and a ride to make summer-school classes at East High – any excuses pre-empted by someone who cares that he earns his diploma and a better future. At 12 elementary schools, a student might get after-school help from a homework club to a cooking class to family food support to stay engaged in school.
Hundreds of these kids who had been chronically absent, failing classes, missing credits, or needing a caring adult to count on testify to the power of home. That power, created by many of us joining together for the sake of our kids, has contributed to a significant improvement in our graduation rates. We stand at just over 80 percent now, as of 2018. (2019 grad figures have yet to be calculated by the Anchorage School District and confirmed by the state). That’s 20 points higher than when we started this work a decade ago.
It’s a tough task to reach 90% graduation by May 2020. But we’ll keep making the reach. We’re heartened by one of the photos in the Akhiok story. Denise Kalmakoff is adjusting the cap of incoming kindergartener Joseph Amodo White as they share the stage during graduation at Akhiok School. Sweet moment, one that evokes the abiding nature of home, which works both in Akhiok and Anchorage, and doesn’t stop at 2020.