American Graduate: Destination Graduation

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Hear how a United Way program called “Destination Graduation” is targeting middle school students with the goal of graduating high school. We’ll then hear more about the program from Julia Estrada,

Valley of the Sun United Way’s Youth Education Director.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of American Graduate looks at Destination Graduation, a program that helps identify middle school kids that already could be at risk of becoming high school dropouts. The program was created by the Valley of the Sun United Way and is getting a lot of attention in Arizona, where almost one in five state high school students fail to graduate in five years. Producer Alyssa Adams hit the school hallways to find out why this program works.

Alex Guzman: My freshman year, between sports and the social life, I thought I didn't have enough time for school but that's what everybody says. I would always put everything off and it started to come back at me in the long run. Before I could let it go on I had to put a stop to it.

Alyssa Adams: At 13 years old Alex Guzman saw his life floating in the wrong direction. Then someone threw him a line.

Alyssa Adams: The support I finally wanted showed up. And with foresight not typical of a teen Guzman grabbed on.

Alex Guzman: Once Destination Graduation was offered to me, you know what, it would be dumb of me to say no. I took full advantage and here I am today.

Alyssa Adams: Destination Graduation identifies at-risk students early in the seventh, eighth and ninth grade. It gives them the skills they need to navigate the sometimes bumpy ride of adolescence.

Mentor: Friends have a big impact, they can help you a lot, they can also hold you back.

Alyssa Adams: These 9th graders at Camelback High School have weekly classes with Jobs For Arizona graduates or JAG coordinators.

Mentor: Does anybody have any ideas how Demarco could work hard towards that goal?

Alyssa Adams: They also have sessions with volunteer classroom mentors like Michelle Donati-Grayman.

Michelle Donati-Grayman: First day I went to a classroom I was so nervous I didn't know what I should wear. I didn't know -- I didn't want to try too hard. What if they didn't listen to me. I went in with just a lot of jitters.

Alyssa Adams: A few times a month she stuffs the jitters away and leads 20 students in discussions about finding a career, interviewing skills and money.

Michelle Donati-Grayman: We talked about how much you make if you don't graduate from high school versus how much you makes as a high school graduate, versus how much you makes as a college graduate. Then we talk about the cost of living.

Alyssa Adams: She puts them on display for students like these. Just about every topic becomes a lesson.

Michelle Donati-Grayman: Did you plan to get pregnant? Those are the types of questions I get and I'm very open to talking about it. That yes, you know, we plan for this pregnancy. Went to school and graduated and worked and saved money and bought a house and did all of these things in the order that we would want them to do, as well.

Alyssa Adams: For Guzman it was Destination Graduation mentor who helped him believe he could move beyond high school and land on his feet in a college classroom.

Alex Guzman: He gave me the support and belief in myself I didn't know I had.

Alyssa Adams: He is now in a college program called year up at gateway community college. He's got a year of college under his belt and wears a tie every day to his internship at Bank of America.

Alex Guzman: I want to be able to dress for a job I want to have one day, not where I'm at right now.

Alyssa Adams: Four years after grabbing that first lifeline from Destination Graduation, Alex Guzman has big plans and big expectations for himself.

Alex Guzman: That's one of the little things that pushes me every day and it's just to be a pioneer in my family. Be the first one with a master's degree.

Ted Simons: Destination Graduation is currently in seven Arizona schools. Here now with more on the program is Julia Estrada, Valley of the Sun United Way's youth education director. Matt Georgia at Camelback High School.

Julia Estrada: Thank you for having us.

Ted Simons: This study says 75% of high school dropouts can be identified between the sixth and ninth grades?

Julia Estrada: Yes. So longitudinally speaking a lot of data shows us that, as early as sixth grade and possibly earlier than that. We know there are indicators that students present academically. Those are the ABCs, attendance, behavior and course competency indicators.

Ted Simons: When Destination Graduation first started, was created by you folks, what was the goal here? What was the mindset?

Julia Estrada: There is a community objective to increase academic outcomes and graduation rates for youth. And this was a large body of concentrated research went into looking at those things that could have the most impact in turning the trajectory of some students around and Destination Graduation and the theory of change that it's based on really led to us look at the middle grades as a significant point in time.

Ted Simons: Middle grades, I would imagine things like poor attendance, poor behavior, these sorts of things, obvious signs and signals.

Ted Simons: So many middle school kids go through phases. How do we know this is something we really need to crack down on with this kid?

Matt Georgia: What we know at Camelback or any high school if students aren't finding success early in high school they continue that track. What we want to do is minimize that adjustment period, transition period from middle school to high school to make sure that attendance is not an issue to behaviors already adhering to the expectations of an educational campus. And that kids have the wherewithal, the academic and social wherewithal to have success in high school.

Ted Simons: The study seemed to show failing in English and math, those are huge identifiers, as well.

Matt Georgia: If students are struggling in reading they are going to struggle in every class. If kids have critical thinking issues and calculation skill issues they know they are going to struggle in sciences and math and English.

Ted Simons: Talk about the mentoring aspect of the program.

Julia Estrada: Okay, yeah. So Destination Graduation has created a credible partnership with our school to bring in volunteers from the community. And those volunteers are in the shape of classroom mentors, classroom advisors. They are also opportunities for career and college panel discussions, really communicating the importance of school, the importance of education, and how to set goals and navigate the high school system. And how to navigate goal-setting and their plans for their postsecondary success.

Ted Simons: How do you decide who's a mentor? And what do you tell the mentors to expect?

Julia Estrada: That's a great question. Our mentors come from every walk of life. We have a wonderful -- wonderful business partners who bring mentors to us by way of their corporate responsibility and just wanting to engage in the community. And we really work with them. We bring in opportunities to train the mentors, to give them expectations around working with youth. We talk to them about what classroom mentorship looks like and how to really connect with the students. That's the biggest fear going in I think for any volunteer, how are they going to resonate with the students, how are student going to connect with them. Just by being themselves and talking about their own journey through high school and being real honest with students, giving them their perspective and how they found success, whatever route that looked like.

Ted Simons: How do you keep a student from disengaging?

Matt Georgia: I think you try to expose them in as many ways as possible and its not always academics that kids engage in. We know if kids are disconnected they will disconnect from academics, poor social skills, community issues, that's going translate to family issues as well. We talk about good role models on campus. We rely on teachers, mentors, security guards, any adult with a positive story to share with kids.

Ted Simons: I know we're talking middle school kids but from sixth to ninth grade, from what you see, where you sit, the difference between the younger kids and some of the older high school students that just seem to be on the wrong trajectory? How do you deal with that?

Matt Georgia: We try to spend a lot of individual time with kids. The perception of a comprehensive high school is that students become numbers and we really try to talk about our first job is to love kids. Sometimes that's missing from a big comprehensive high school. So we just really just try to focus on loving kids and connecting with them on a non-academic level. Until kids feel safe and confident in that relationship and their belonging then we start to approach the academics.

Ted Simons: As far as the younger ones compared to the older ones is there just more room to move with the younger ones? 17-, 18-year-old, it's tough to turn that ship around.

Matt Georgia: And the momentum has been built in the wrong direction. What we want to do is try to prepare instead of repair educational systems.

Ted Simons: Before we go, last thing people need to know about Destination Graduation? Sounds like it's been quite the success. Are we going to see it in more schools?

Julia Estrada: We do plan to expand it to more schools. We really want to look at the readiness and welcoming environment of a school community and the community that surrounds that school. And how we can get these best practices of intervening early and changing the trajectory for students.

Ted Simons: Get those early warning systems figured out and move from there. Thanks for joining us.

Julia Estrada: Thank you.

Julia Estrada:Valley of the Sun United Way's Youth Education Director; Matt Georgia: Assistant Principle at Camelback High School

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