Graduation Coaches Go To Bat for Kids—and Each Other

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Imagine that you dreamed up ways to reach troubled children among the 50,000 students in Alaska's largest school district—that you decided to coach them into finishing high school. Now imagine that you found ways to build on that dream and make it come true.

That's what the AFT-affiliated Anchorage Council of Education (ACE) did in helping implement a 2008 "graduation coach" project, which won an AFT Innovation Fund grant two years later. The collaborative effort among the union, school district and community trains paraprofessionals and school-related personnel to identify students at risk of dropping out and help them make it to graduation.

These eight staffers are part tutor, part social worker and part community liaison. They receive training and support, and are a big part of the district's efforts to improve the graduation rate in Anchorage, which has risen for two years in a row.

As if that weren't enough, the union is working with the University of Alaska to develop a course of study leading to a certificate program for graduation support professionals, which would be the first of its kind in the nation.

Now imagine how the graduation coaches were humming along this winter when suddenly the school district announced a $12 million budget shortfall and said every graduation coach, along with many school secretaries and other staff, would be laid off.

A high school administrator delivered the bad news during one of the coaches' regular meetings. "He wasn't happy about it at all," says project co-director Corinne McVee. "You could tell it was a painful thing for him to say right to their faces."

At first, the coaches felt defeated; they'd been on the chopping block last year, too. But after the first budget hearing, when several principals spoke highly of them, they began gathering momentum. Several ACE members held a meeting and decided they were not going down without a fight, saying "our silence is our acceptance."

They began planning their testimony for the next hearing, and by February, they were ready. ACE members Patricia Hanley, Avis Fukuoka, Christal Smaw and Eric Spade (in this video by a local NBC News station), along with two of the local's officers, described their work as graduation coaches—for instance, a MASH unit (missing assignment study hall) where teachers or counselors refer students to catch up on schoolwork during lunch.

"The school board had no idea there was such a thing," McVee says. "It was pretty dramatic how impressed they were with the coaches. They were listening with rapt attention while the coaches were testifying, bowling them over."

The coaches also pointed out that if the district eliminated their program, ACE would be losing its grant from the AFT Innovation Fund. After a long debate, the board decided to dip into the budget reserve and keep every graduation coach.

"In the end, it was the members who saved themselves," McVee says. "The four of them totally stole the show." [Annette Licitra]

February 9, 2011