By Teachers, For Teachers
What if the people who could help your school and the teaching profession a great deal are the students who have left? While colleges track, connect with, and utilize their alumni, K-12 schools seldom do in the same way – beyond reunions or a successful former student at a college talk or career day. “We believe alumni are the greatest untapped resource in education today,” says Jeff Stein, project director for Alumni Toolkit, which is part of an international non-profit called First Future that helps schools develop an alumni engagement program in the teaching profession. Stein says former students of all ages can help the teaching profession and “Are uniquely qualified and motivated” to provide their schools with the “inspiring and diverse college and career role models,” and partner with the schools in a variety of ways. “In this is an age of thinking differently about underutilized resources and finding better solutions, it just make sense,” he says. “Alumni advocacy has so much potential to support schools, inspire students and reward educators – and it's an idea that can be launched with small numbers of programs and alumni.”
Through Stein’s program, participants get resources to connect with alumni, engage them, and direct their alumni efforts, and assistance with issues such as FERPA, privacy laws, or database management. Stein notes that his organization works with individual educators, a group of interested staff and parents or administrators. He recommends that programs begin with about five alumni who help with existing activities, then expand the number of participants and allow them to generate their own initiatives.
“Alumni also can help with efforts schools either want to undertake or are being encouraged to – such as project-based learning, community collaboration, college-ready kids, career exploration, after-school programs and even STEM in the real world,” he says.
A foundation supports Alumni Toolkit, but Stein says they hope to develop a fee-based system that will make the program self-sustaining. It is now part of a pilot project in partnership with the University of California, San Diego.
Roman De Rosario, principal at Bonita Vista High School in San Diego, says he believes there is "Tremendous promise" for work like Future First’s, which this year helped his school recruit 16 alumni. "It will allow us to mobilize our alumni in career networks and as role models,” he says.
But schools are finding other ways to develop relationships with alumni on their own, too.
Salem (Ohio) High School has for about 140 years had the Salem High School Alumni Association, and last year it provided students at the school 97 scholarships totaling nearly $335,000, making the total donated to the students $7.2 million since the group started offering financial aid in 1908. About 35 percent of the seniors got support from the group
"They are a critical part of the culture here," says Salem Principal Sean Kirkland, who attended Salem High and credits a scholarship from the association with allowing him to attend college. "It is amazing how many students they have helped – and the role they have played here for so long."
The Lewisville, Texas, High School, alumni is involved in several special events that link the school to the town, scholarships and laptop computers to more than a dozen graduating seniors.
The Richmond, Ind., High School Alumni Association, which claims to be the third oldest in the country, has a scholarship program that provides from $3000 to $6000 to all students with over a 2.5 GPA if they attend colleges in the county, including alumni, who then often become active in their group.
"When I look at the way colleges and universities connect with and work with their alumni network to so much benefit, I'm almost embarrassed that we as high school principals simply ignore that same resource – one that could improve our institutions in so many ways," says Joel Leer, principal at Northfield, Minn., High School.
Beyond providing scholarships, they can support sports programs directly or as boosters, provide project-based learning through after-school activities or courses where they have expertise, support the office staff or teachers in a classroom occasionally, or help with special events. At a time when "Community schools" are emphasized, alumni with connections to both can be key. They often can make connections for schools to local businesses. At some schools, alumni who come from other countries are a valuable resource for ESL programs.
Rosemary Bocella, a retired teacher at Bensalem High School just northeast of Philadelphia, helped found the Distinguished Alumni Award at Bensalem to recognize about a dozen former students each year.
She notes the program provides current students with ideas for careers and information about colleges and work. She also says that the award winners often speak to classes and become active in their schools – and students are exposed to how Bensalem graduates thrive and often comment about wanting to be recognized themselves. And teachers get to see their former students.
"All good schools are proud of their heritage and want to maintain a sense of community, says Mark Banchi, a retired teacher who co-founded the award structure with Bocella. "From the beginning, we wanted to showcase alumni achievements and inspire current and future students, showing them a variety of paths to success and personal accomplishment."
Try something different. Some alumni may want to be involved in the school in a different way – providing information about something they know or learning something new. Some might want to help with athletics, with teaching trades, or want to work on school gardens or school plays. Try something new with the reunion – expose participants to programs at the school or directly involve current students. Some schools let active alumni use facilities get in free to events, participate in educational programs, or invite them on trips that students are taking. In line with the "Subscription" approach by some colleges that allows students life-long involvement and learning, consider putting high school graduates in the same position. Consider alumni with children who are looking for activity and would like to see the schools their kids will attend. Plan smaller events or activities aimed at specific groups – a book club, for instance, or sessions for members of tight-knit but less visible former team or group. One cross country team alumni group meets regularly at a northwest Pennsylvania high school and a former cast of a play a few years ago helps with the new one at the school.
Making links. Alumni involvement requires that you provide them with opportunities for connections – to each other, the school and the student body. But it also brings the benefits of networking to the school and its students, through the connections with these valuable alumni, the community and their associations. Connections like these at a school create others, and should be a primary goal of alumni engagement.
Chip in. For the potential benefit of having a team of adults actively participating in the school, it is worth it to allow them to use school equipment or staff at times – or even be treated to a special event. Building an alumni program will pay for such expenses many times over.
Tech connections. Use social media, obviously. Give the alumni group a page on the school site and support from the staff that maintains the school's. Help them get a formidable online presence and support it by retweeting and posting their material – and asking others to. Develop and maintain a good database of alumni and update it, perhaps with periodic e-blast reminders to those on it to update their information and provide data about others.
Keep the energy up. In busy schools, projects like an alumni engagement program can lose energy as the year wears down. Plans should call for meetings to evaluate the effort throughout the year. Experts also say such a program should start small with a clear plan and specific goals. It should be the responsibility of one staff member, but eventually might be directed by of one of the volunteers, or a committee of them. Think about involving former students who were leaders because they probably still are.