When I joined the High School Graduation team at Metro United Way (MUW) two years ago I remember hearing the phrase "we must improve the high school graduation rate!" repeated many times. Naturally - and because MUW has trained me well - I turned to the data to see for myself if this is true. While there is certainly room for improvement I was surprised to learn that Jefferson County Public School's (JCPS) high school graduation rate is nearly 80% and Kentucky boasts one of the ten highest graduation rates in the country.
I wondered if improving the graduation rate alone was where we needed to be focusing our energy. If so, I reasoned, then academics and test scores seemed like a logical focal point. However, I dug deeper and discovered that the "Graduating College/Career Readiness Rate" was certainly nothing to boast about. In JCPS that indicator stands at only 63%. Why such a big gap? I wondered. And how in the world is this community going to work together to close it?
Enter out-of-school time (OST) programs. Metro United Way and our partners in this work, JCPS and Louisville Metro Government, believe strongly that OST programs have a major role to play in closing the readiness gap.
"How?" you ask. Simple.
The answer is SEL, or social-emotional learning. That is the sweet spot for OST programs. It's during those critical hours before and after school, on the weekends and during the summer when young people are attending quality OST programs that they are learning and practicing those "power skills" (as my colleague TJ likes to call them) that are really going to propel young people towards readiness.
Quality OST programs are designed to help young people build their critical thinking skills, practice effective communication strategies with peers and adults, learn the importance of not giving up when a task gets difficult (or life throws you a curve ball), and experience feelings of accomplishment and pride after collaborating with peers on a project or team. These skills are different from academics - but are known to positively impact academic outcomes - and are equally important to truly being ready for college, work, and life.
When I'm asked what Metro United Way does, I answer with one word: READINESS. Our "sweet spot" is ensuring our community's young people are ready for whatever their next stage of life may bring. Whether it's ensuring our youngest children are ready for kindergarten or our older youth are ready to tackle college or a career after graduating high school, Metro United Way is committed to making certain that children have the tools, skills, and supportive networks they need to BE READY and SUCCEED. And we are steadfast in our readiness strategies for all ages: invest in the adults who work most closely with young people, improve the quality of programs that serve our youth, and encourage youth-led learning and exploration.
The best news? Our data is showing us that these strategies are working! Whether we are investing in preschool teachers at our Excellence Academy early learning centers, the parents and caregivers who participate in Ages & Stages Questionnaires, or the youth workers in OST programs, Metro United Way has discovered that these supportive networks and relationships make a difference in the readiness of our community's children. Likewise, whether we're talking about Reggio Emilia or youth development, we are discovering that supporting young people in their own learning and development fosters positive relationships, critical thinking skills, leadership and responsibility, which in turn improve the overall quality of programs. This is what readiness - and Metro United Way - are all about.
By establishing a system that helps steer local students toward high quality out-of-school time programs, Metro United Way hopes to provide a stronger educational foundation to help decrease the high school drop-out rate and increase college degrees, thus benefitting the entire community in the long run.
For more information about OST programs in our community, visit www.metrounitedway.org/ost.
Angie Ditsler is the Director of High School Graduation Initiatives at Metro United Way. She has been with MUW over 10 years, having served in several different positions. Angie began her youth development career working with youth in Guadalajara and Merida, Mexico before eventually moving to Louisville in 2005. She has a bachelors degree from Centre College and masters degrees from the Roehampton University in London, UK and the University of Louisville. Angie's most important job however is being mom to three children under age 5. When she's not chasing after her own kids Angie enjoys gardening, cooking, and cheering on her UofL Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals.