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Tapping the Value of High School Alumni

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In 2018, several faculty affiliated with the Yankelovich Center learned of an innovative program tried and tested in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world that had the promise to aid secondary education in the United States, especially the transitions of students to college or to careers. The program, called “Future First,” was surprisingly simple yet refreshingly original.

The basic idea was to tap the expertise and good will of high school alumni to bring value to today’s students. There was survey data showing that a large percentage of alumni would be willing to volunteer their services to their old schools—in effect, a free workforce already existed. How might they bring value to their old neighborhoods? 

For scholars and policymakers interested in opening up educational opportunity, many ideas can come to mind. First, there is a long-standing tradition of using “role models” to inspire students and show them that “people like me” can find success in a variety of careers. For most, these role models were ideally matched to students’ racial background and/or gender, so that girls and students of color would not limit their own rise due to beliefs that doors were closed to them. The Future First innovation was to match role models for students based on neighborhood and school district. Students could meet alumni from all walks of life and realize that people from their neighborhoods had many different possible career trajectories.

Another way they might bring value is through the imparting of technical know-how. This could be related to going to college, including finding the “right” school or navigating the financial aid system. It could also involve sharing knowledge on how to gain skills for a trade, or how to rise to a manager position in local restaurants or retail establishment. Alumni could share important knowledge about careers at all skill levels.

A third way alumni might bring value to local high schools would be help change the relationship of the public to the public school. For most Americans, high school is four years of learning (or not so much learning), and then it recedes into the rear view mirror, not thought of again except to reminisce or return for class reunions or sporting events. If alumni’s interest in helping the next generation could be tapped, Future First USA (the US branch of an international organization) could be part of gradual change in the way people think of their public school, and their investment in it and current students. Activating high school alumni, even if they have moved away, could be part of a new community-building enterprise that could pay dividends in civic spirit and participation.

For all of these reasons and more, YSS faculty worked with Future First USA to develop a pilot study to assess how high school alumni might be useful to today’s schools. Led by Susan Yonezawa, the pilot study used Future First USA’s “Alumni ToolKit” software to find and place alumni in San Diego-area schools. Yonezawa and her team found 15 area schools to give Alumni ToolKit a try during the 2018-2019 school year.

The results were very promising, and suggest that high school alumni are indeed a potential resource for schools.

A report on the pilot study can be found here.