Facilitating Alumni Involvement in Schools

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Major reports in this decade have made it eminently clear that the current generation of young people in this country differs substantially from previous generations. A much greater proportion of today's young face serious socioeconomic barriers that may hamper their successful completion of school.

Overcoming these barriers has rightfully been seen as a task not simply for educators but for the entire community. And in that spirit, philanthropic groups and individuals, such as the New York City industrialist Eugene M. Lang, have created incentive programs that help some of these so-called "at risk" young achieve their dreams of meaningful work and a good education.

In Philadelphia, a new program along these lines hopes to broaden the base of public involvement while increasing the number of students helped. It is called "Philadelphia Futures," and it seeks to tap a source of support that has long been a staple of the higher-education community: school pride and nostalgia.

The central strategy of Philadelphia Futures, which operates as an independent, nonprofit clearinghouse, is to assist alumni of the city's schools--public and parochial--in providing support for students currently attending their alma maters. It also enlists the aid of other segments of the community, including corporate, religious, cultural, and governmental groups.

Other programs aimed at motivating students to stay in school, such as Mr. Lang's "I Have a Dream" Foundation, now operating in 24 cities, yield great and praiseworthy benefits for the students they serve. But, as critics have noted, the generous spirit behind them often operates like a lottery, dispensing good fortune unequally among classes within a selected school or even among siblings.

Philadelphia's program recognizes that, to reach the vast majority of those in need, intervention must be broader. It must go beyond the mere provision of fiscal resources, finding creative ways to channel the energies and concerns of average citizens.

Philadelphia Futures is working to open up more options for the city's young by, first, connecting them to resources already available and, then, creating new sources of support from people who may never before have been asked to lend a helping hand: the schools' alumni.

Though higher education has traditionally depended on alumni involvement, such support has not been widely sought below the college level. The psychological basis for this kind of appeal is the premise--corroborated by sociologists--that as our society becomes more mobile, we seek our roots; we grow more nostalgic. Programs like Philadelphia Futures can turn that nostalgia into positive action.

The project's method is information and referral. Using media outreach and promotion, it facilitates access for those who wish to volunteer as tutors, mentors, or role models, or who want to create incentives such as prizes and scholarships encouraging students to remain in school. Through a central telephone number, the program links those willing to intervene with those in need.

An advisory group of state and local leaders--including Mayor W. Wilson Goode, Pennsylvania's secretary of education, Thomas Gilhool, and the superintendents of Philadelphia's public and parochial6schools--has provided the visibility needed to raise funding for start-up operations.

Since the project was officially launched in January, several promising initiatives have taken shape. They suggest the range of support activities such programs can provide:

Twenty mentors and tutors have been placed with schools and community-based organizations. These volunteers range from a newspaper reporter to a corporate lawyer. The program also is providing role models through career days in schools.

In each of these activities, Philadelphia Futures is fulfilling its role as a broker in servicing existing programs.

Ten alumni have pledged to provide financial aid for college to individual students from their high schools. Two committees have been formed to work with donors on such matters as the criteria for and selection of recipients.

Fifteen other graduates have established small prizes in their favorite subjects and grade levels. These awards--which may take the form of cash, subscriptions to magazines, or cultural-center memberships--are a way of recognizing current students for outstanding achievement or effort.

In response to queries about the cost of such involvement, the staff suggests that $250 in the bank will assure a $25 prize for a number of years.

A scholarship directory developed by the program was published by the Philadelphia Daily News in February. Two local businesses have paid for 40,000 copies--to be distributed to high-school juniors and seniors throughout the city, as well as to community-based organizations and churches.

The purpose of this project is not only to encourage other donors, but to ensure that existing scholarships are used. Millions of dollars in private college-aid money are overlooked nationally each year.

Another newspaper publication, a comprehensive directory of local incentive programs, is in preparation. No such compilation currently exists.

The guide will include listings of summer activities, stipends, contests, and other programs that have become part of the public agenda of corporations, libraries, civic organizations, and private schools. This effort is intended both to improve accessibility to these opportunities and promote them as exemplars.

Several area colleges have developed plans for further involvement with high schools. One university is organizing a summer computer camp; others are planning orientation programs to entice students into the sciences.

Through such programs, colleges can raise the expectations of disadvantaged students while introducing them to their own institutions in the hope of later recruitment.

A weekly hotline for college financial-aid information will soon be giving parents and other citizens a chance to talk informally with a college-admissions financial counselor. A local bank--psfs--has funded the service, and college-based personnel are being asked to volunteer on a rotating basis.

And a group of college-admissions officers, along with recently graduated Philadelphia high-school alumni, will soon begin visiting local schools. Informal panel discussions will be aimed at creating among students a sense of expectation and greater motivation to further their schooling.

None of these initiatives is easily achieved; each takes networking, meetings, agreements, and flexibility. Each also requires staffing--and for a low-budget enterprise, that means office volunteers are needed.

But the alternative is to throw up our hands and label the problems of today's young people "someone else's business."

Vol. 8, Issue 23, Page 24

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