My name is Michelle Cohen and I am an AmeriCorps Volunteer In Service To America (VISTA) serving as a College and Career Readiness Specialist at the Office of Early Academic Outreach at the University of Arizona. Throughout April I coordinated an event called Reach Higher to support the Community Schools initiative. These events took place at seven of the eight community schools including Sentinel Peak, Desert View, Pueblo, Palo Verde, Santa Rita, Catalina, and Flowing Wells. Over 70 students participated in having their photos taken to celebrate the choice to pursue a post-graduation pathway. The goal of the Community Schools Initiative is to increase graduation rates and improve post-graduation outcomes, so this event fit perfectly within that objective. The Reach Higher initiative was launched by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2014, to celebrate college signing day, and to encourage all high school graduates to go onto post-secondary education opportunities. In order to bring this event to the Community Schools, I ordered a photo backdrop and showed up at various high school fairs or college signing events at the Community Schools. We used the backdrop to take photos of the students who have picked pathways to follow after high school. When Michelle Obama began the reach higher initiative she challenged US communities, by urging for everyone to begin “reaching higher for our young people” and for this event I wanted to re-think her message that this can be more than just going on to higher education.
One of the risks we take when celebrating student success is further ostracizing students who are not ‘succeeding’ in the narrow way we often term such ideas. Instead of just recognizing students who have accepted an offer to go to college—this event recognized any student who had an inkling of what they may be considering as a pathway after high school. This included national service, career choices, and military service. By doing the event this way, it did not just recognize students with good GPAs, with clear goals, following a traditional pathway to success. By including anyone who wanted to take part, the event did not celebrate college bound students while simultaneously reinforcing that students on other pathways are failing. By expanding the standards of what qualified someone to participate, we created an inclusive event that made it possible to have great results, even at alternative schools such as Sentinel Peak, students joined in on the idea Mrs. Obama had—to reach higher.
My question though, is how do we as VISTAs and educators continue to encourage success even if it’s non-traditional success? How do we reach the kids who do not show up to these lunch time events? What kind of events can we create that target the students who are not only not going straight to four-year colleges, but may be a day away from dropping out altogether, or from an arrest that will forever alter a young person’s life? After all, the Community School Initiative’s main point of existence is to increase graduation rates. We all know it is easier to reach the students who are still on the cusp of ‘success’, but I know I have learned that the job of a VISTA is not an easy one.