With the start of the new school year comes a renewed push to help more Anchorage students graduate.

Right now, graduation rates in the Anchorage School District rank slightly below the national average -- with 81 percent of the Anchorage's students graduating in 2017, compared to 84 percent nationally.

ASD has yet to release data for 2018, but the United Way of Anchorage is already kicking off a new year of work on its initiative to boost numbers to 90 percent by 2020.

In partnership with the Anchorage School District, Covenant House Alaska and several other nonprofits, the organization help meet students individual needs -- such as housing, or transportation to and from school, in order to increase their attendance. 

"What we did is sit down with ASD and figure out which kids are falling behind in attendance or credits, and then we work with the kids, the school, their families, to get them the right support at the right time to have them increase their attendance, get their credit recovery, get grades up," said Michele Brown, president of United Way of Anchorage. "If we do that consistently at the right time and make sure it's working, we see our results climb."

Since United Way of Anchorage set out on its 90 percent by 2020 mission 10 years ago, Brown says the city has already seen significant progress -- with graduation rates rising from 59 percent to 81 percent in that time frame. 

"It took us a while to get the hang of what's working and we're stepping up. When we started work in elementary schools, we were in two. We're now in 12. We started work with the high school kids two years ago. 153 have now graduated, so we're stepping up to serve more kids," Brown said. "While we're still behind the national level, our rate of increase in graduation rate has been twice the national rate."

However, Brown says it will take more community support to reach United Way's goal, noting that the organization is always in need of volunteers and donations to continue its work. 

"One of the most important things, though, is to pay attention to the children you encounter because if they know the community cares about them, they're going to do better," Brown said. "So let every kid you see know that you have high expectations for them, that you have their back."

Brown says students who graduate high school have a better chance of earning a livable wage, are less likely to depend on welfare programs to support their families, and, on average, tend to commit fewer crimes than peers who don't. 

"So, this is how we grow a strong, resilient community," Brown said.

To learn more about the 90 percent by 2020 program, click here.

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