Getting to Graduation gathers students and community to talk about dropout crisis

Juneau public broadcasting’s months-long American Graduate project culminated Dec. 10 in Getting to Graduation, a community discussion broadcasted live on TV, radio and online.

The project, spearheaded by KTOO, KRNN, KXLL and 360 North, was a result of a grant to get local stations involved in discussing the dropout crisis facing many communities.

In Juneau, nearly 1 in 3 students won’t attain a high school diploma. Ninety-three students dropped out of Juneau high schools in the last school year. Statewide, more than 2,830 students quit school for one reason or another.

The hour and a half of talking circles featured kids and families, representatives of education and community programs, and local policy makers.

The evening emphasized the participation of students telling their own stories.

Kayla Ryan, graduated in 2008 at the age of 21, two years after she should have graduated. Ryan says she suffered from learning disabilities and an unstable home life. She dropped out of school after becoming frustrated with feelings that teachers didn’t want to waste time on her because of her learning disabilities.

Ryan says she didn’t just want a GED, she wanted her diploma. She found out about the program at Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School, and returned to school.

When asked about what could be done to help students, Ryan says it’s about understanding what students are facing.

“Listen, we have drama. I’ll give you that. But there’s usually something to that drama,” Ryan said.

Crystal Rogers graduated from Yaakoosge in 2002 and is almost finished with her bachelor’s degree. Her journey to graduation was tumultuous, dealing with multiple foster homes and separation from her twin sister.

Rogers says it’s important to remind students that no matter what they are going through, or what it may look like from the outside, “they are not defective human beings and they have it in them to do whatever it is that they want to do.”

The principal of Yakoosge, Sarah Marino, works with students facing a wide range of obstacles.

Marino says that one of the most important parts of her job is helping student dream.

“Many students don’t know what they want next and that makes graduating so much harder,” Marino says.

Laury Scandling, the Assistant Superintendent for the Juneau school district, was a project coordinator for the American Graduate series and the Getting to Graduation event.

“The point was to stimulate conversations about graduation. I did not expect that there would be an answer. There is no answer. There are a variety of strategies that help a variety of youth. Because youth are not monolithic. Every kid has a different set of needs.”

Scandling says she’s taking notes on the concrete commitments that were made by leaders and on things that students said were important. She plans to work in those ideas into what the school district is doing.

For more information about the American Graduate project, check out the project page with the full community discussion, interviews with students and local educators and a stories leading up to the community discussion.