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To Open the Door for Young People, Sometimes You Just Have to Knock

Tucson Program Uses Volunteer Power to Bring Young People Back to School

Talking to studentsOne day last month some young people who had dropped out of school in Tucson, Arizona, received a true wake-up call. They answered the door to find the school superintendent, the mayor or another local big shot standing there, urging them to re-enroll.

“You’d be surprised, but the mayor or the school superintendent knocking on your door–sometimes waking you up–and asking you to get back in school, has an effect,” said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

Through a Tucson program called Steps to Success, teams of volunteers are dispatched twice a year–in July and January–to the homes of young people in grades seven to 12 who have left school. In the two years since its launch, the program has re-enrolled 384 students, and 41 of them have graduated.

"The outpouring of volunteers is an indication of the heart and soul of this community and its dedication to its youth," said H.T. Sánchez, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District, who collaborated with Rothschild to establish Steps to Success.

The national high school graduation rate for 2014 (the most recent year available) was 82.3 percent an all-time high. In Tucson, the graduation rate for students was 81.1 percent in 2015, up from 79.6 percent the previous year.

America’s Promise Alliance’s GradNation campaign is aiming for a 90 percent on-time graduation rate by 2020. The GradNation State Activation Initiative, a three-year collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson, helps support efforts in Arizona to increase graduation rates in 16 Arizona cities, including Tucson.

“These kids need to hear from adults in the community that we want them to succeed, that they have what it takes to achieve,” Rothschild said.

Steps for Success volunteer teams include a notable community member (such as University of Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne and Jim Click, a prominent southern Arizona business owner), a school administrator and a district student services professional.

In the morning before heading out, volunteers receive training and information about each student they’re assigned to visit–when the student dropped out, the conditions under which he or she left and the student’s academic standing.

Many of the students are just a few credits away from graduation, like high school senior Anthony Valenzuela. He got a visit from a Steps to Success team in July 2015. By December, he had his high school diploma.

“It was a wake-up call for me that I could do anything,” Valenzuela said. “The sky is my limit and I hope it’s everyone else’s.”

Steps to Success has reached out to a total of 720 students since its launch. Each set of home visits engages about 150 volunteers who visit an average of 230 homes.

John Kramkowski, program specialist with the Tucson Unified School District’s Student Services/Dropout Prevention department, said the key to the program’s success is the follow-up support from district staff, who call and visit students after the initial contact, walking them through the reintegration process. The district has 12 dropout prevention specialists on staff, covering all of the high schools and a few high-risk middle schools.

Kramkowski said one of the goals is to help students understand why graduating matters. He said that often students on the verge of dropping out “lose a connection to the value of education.”

Given Steps to Success’ results, two other Tucson school districts–Sunnyside Unified School District and Amphitheater Public Schools–have become partners in the effort, and Rothschild said there is interest at the state level to create a partnership.

Meanwhile, the 41 students who have graduated as a result of their participation in the Steps to Success program have more options and greater opportunities ahead.

“I’m happy with myself,” said Timothy Birdsong, who graduated in December 2015. “I know I’ve accomplished something that I’ve wanted to accomplish for a while.”

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country. 

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to improve them, join the GradNation Learning Community. Just send an email to Corey Benjamin with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.