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This is the latest in a series of stories about how the GradNation State Activation initiative is working to improve graduation rates.
Setting Yourself Up for Success
Before Ray Smith was a five-star recruit and a forward for the University of Arizona men's basketball team, he dropped out of high school.
Now, he's committed to helping other young people avoid the same situation.
"I try to tell these kids that if I can do it and be where I'm at today, they can do it too," he says. "School really isn't that hard; you just have to set yourself up for success."
Reaching At-Risk Students, One Knock at a Time
Ray recently joined the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, and 130 other community members for the Steps to Success program. It sends volunteers into local neighborhoods knocking on doors of students who had dropped out or were at risk of not returning for the new school year.
The program is based on the idea that caring adults who reach out with kindness, honesty—and a little extra persuasion—can make a difference in a young student's life.
This year, volunteers have visited nearly 200 homes and connected with 118 young people who had already given up on school.
Steps to Success is run cooperatively by the Tucson Unified School District and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. These same leaders are also members of the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable, an initiative of WestEd.
The Roundtable is one of three groups receiving funding from Pearson and America's Promise Alliance through the GradNation State Activation initiative.
'They Just Need Help'
As Ray Smith and his teammate Dusan Ristic recently knocked on doors, elated young people fumbled for their cameras and asked them to pose for photos.
It was exactly the kind of strong connection with young people the program hopes to achieve.
"It's just a matter of talking with these kids about where they are and how they've struggled," says Dr. H.T. Sánchez, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District. "To see these kids and hear their story—and know that the parents only want what's best for the kids."
"They just need help," he says.
Beating the Odds of a Tough Personal Story
H.T.'s father immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico.
Before becoming TUSD's superintendent, he was an 8th grade English teacher. He went on to serve as principal to elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.
H.T. uses his own story to tell students he meets that his path through education wasn't easy either.
"I know what it's like to have the odds stacked against you," he says. "I also know what it's like with hard work and people that fight for you to succeed."
"I was talking with one parent and told her how I worked and I went to school," he says. "It's tough, but on the other side, you can be very successful."
The Learning Struggles of Immigrants
About 64 percent of Tucson's student population during the 2015-2016 school year was Hispanic.
H.T. knows that understanding their needs is imperative to creating support programs that work.
He recalls struggling to learn English when he first came to this country—and being placed in a special program in school.
"Just because a student speaks with an accent or has difficulty with the language today, doesn't mean cognitively they're slow or that they're impaired or they can't get it," H.T. says. "They're smart, they're very capable, and it's a matter of how do we close the gap of what we know is in their mind and in their heart and what they want to say, but that they just don't have the language to express," he says.
It Takes a Village
Dropout prevention specialist John Kramkowski says building relationships with students in their homes is what sets apart the Steps to Success program.
It builds connections.
"Having done home visits, dropout prevention, and student services for years, a lot of people in our department know the power of a home visit," John says.
"So the idea was to make this program a community-wide effort," he says, "knowing the impact of having an athlete, the mayor, law enforcement, politicians, or powerful members of our community would make this kind of visit even more valuable for families."
"It truly does take a village," he says.
A Passion for At-Risk Kids
Most often, young people leave school because they need to work for their family, they lose interest, or they're failing and feel like recovery is impossible.
And in most cases—parents are eager for their kids to go back.
"We are advocates for the students, but the family as well," says TUSD dropout prevention specialist Claudia Valenzuela.
So the Steps to Success program plans follow-up visits with every student reached to ensure they are true to their intentions and re-enroll in school.
It's something for which the program participants are passionate.
Claudia says: "Going to work every morning is something I really enjoy doing."
The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America's Promise Alliance and Pearson, working to increase high school graduation rates to 90 percent. The effort is building the capacity to raise graduation rates through the innovative approaches and initiatives of three grantees: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Minnesota Alliance With Youth, and WestEd, supporting the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable.