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Des Moines, Iowa
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The members of Education Leadership Initiative (ELI), a United Way of Central Iowa donor affinity group focused on Education Success efforts, understand the immense value of central Iowa students having smooth transition from middle to high school so they can stay on a path to graduation and gain essential buildings block for a better life.

Middle school can be challenging for many students.

It’s a time when they’re experiencing new settings and routines, a changing network of friends, and a more competitive environment – all while facing physical and emotional changes.

Combined, these factors increase the risk of students failing to graduate from high school.

And even if these students end up graduating, oftentimes what lies beyond is a mystery. In fact, 26% of central Iowa high school graduates say they don’t have a plan for the future. If they’re Black, Latino, or come from a household living in low income, that number increases dramatically.

These students need to learn about what is available … to understand all the different opportunities they can pursue once they earn their high school diploma.

Members of United Way of Central Iowa’s Education Leadership Initiative (ELI) recognize this. Subsequently, these donors invest in strategies to ensure students are supported during middle school so they can successfully make the transition to high school, receive a high school diploma, and have a plan for their future.

Since 2004, ELI has raised and invested millions of dollars to help youth in 5th through 9th grades – critical but often overlooked years.

One way of doing so is through United Wayfinders – an umbrella brand that represents all of United Way of Central Iowa’s programs and initiatives in Education Success related to helping students graduate with a plan for the future. One specific initiative is Plan Your Route, which was designed for students who will soon start their journey to high school.  

This event was held on a Saturday this past April at North High School. Similar in some ways to a college visit or orientation, incoming North High School students were invited to attend with their parents or guardians to speak with Des Moines Public School staff and community volunteers to help them plan their path forward to high school, graduation, and beyond.

Ultimately, the goal of the Plan Your Route event was to encourage students who may be faltering on their path to graduation. Students and parents had the chance to work through their options to complete coursework and requirements to reach graduation. They also had the opportunity to speak with skilled tradespeople and post-secondary educators to understand the choices they have and things they need to do to plan beyond graduation.

The United Wayfinders Plan Your Route event is just one such example of how ELI donors make a big impact on youth in the area.  

Investments from members of ELI also benefit nearly 20 local programs that work toward supporting Education Success, including Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates (iJAG) and Des Moines Public Schools’ Community School Coordinators.

Through iJAG, high school and middle school students discover their individual talents, develop skills, and seize opportunities to achieve their personal potential.

Critical to the success of the iJAG program is the relationship established between the student and the iJAG specialist, who serves as adjunct faculty within our partnering school districts at Saydel and Perry High Schools. Each specialist works with a total of 35 to 45 students in a small learning environment and plays a unique role of teacher, advocate, guidance counselor, and mentor.

And their work matters, evidenced by the fact that 97% of iJAG students graduate.
Carly Harper, Director of Development, shared that donor support, like that of ELI members, is critical to the success of iJAG.

“Getting involved with iJAG leads to increased opportunities for students to learn about careers, discover their passions, and identify role models that can inspire their future self,” Harper said.

Student involvement with iJAG leads to positive improvements in student performance and future student outcomes. Volunteers also play a role – by participating in events, visiting classrooms, or serving as a student mentor, volunteers can increase a student’s perception of self and understanding of their purpose.

Another important ELI funded program is Des Moines Public Schools’ Community School Coordinators.

Each Des Moines high school has a community school coordinator to foster, strengthen, and maintain the bridge between the school and community. Coordinators are the liaison and connector for areas such as parent/family engagement, community engagement, youth development, mental health, after-school programming, and mentoring. Coordinators focus on the highest need students while also fostering programming that ensures all students stay engaged and connected in school.

One such coordinator is Harding Middle School’s Julian Seay. He first heard about the role when he began coaching basketball at North High School and thought it would be the perfect fit.

“In any community I’ve ever lived in, it’s been important to me to engage and do work at the community level,” he said.

While his job requires many things of him, Seay believes his main duty is simply to love.

“I genuinely get to be the good guy that spreads joy and love in all the ways,” he said.

A big aspect of Seay’s role as community school coordinator is to find ways to remove barriers and get resources in the hands of the students and families who need it. He shared one recent example of a family who needed furniture for their new house. Within three days, Seay had secured just that, plus a moving van. He even drove around central Iowa picking everything up and delivering it to the family.

Seay says the biggest impact his job enables him to have revolves around community.

“It’s restructuring or rebuilding community in a new way where everyone feels involved and engaged,” he said.

DeMarco Lowry, who oversees all of the district’s community school coordinators, shared that a big goal for the future is to focus on helping students make a successful transition from both elementary school to middle school and middle school to high school.

“We realize students need to feel welcome and they need to feel included,” he said. “The way we do that is making that first impression once they get to be a 6th grader and a 9th grader.”

Lowry added that community school coordinators focus on four pillars: integrated student supports (including overseeing their school building’s food pantry and clothing closet), expanded and enriched out-of-school learning time, active community and family engagement, and collaborative leadership.

“None of this work would be possible without an actual community school coordinator inside the building,” he said. "Without the position, you might see 10% of the work being done. What truly makes a school a community school is a community school coordinator, because they have the knowledge, resources, and experience to bring all visions to life.”

To learn more about how you can get involved with ELI funded programs like Community School Coordinators and iJAG, as well as initiatives like United Wayfinders Plan Your Route, visit unitedwaydm.org/eli.

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