ASU and local education leaders pose at the Network for School Improvement event

ASU launches program to increase access to postsecondary education for Arizona K–12 schools

By

Hannah Moulton Belec

Access ASU and the Be a Leader Foundation will partner with three Arizona high school districts to implement an Arizona Network for School Improvement, to be funded by an $8.7 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Access ASU and the Be a Leader Foundation are partnering together along with three Arizona high school districts to implement the Arizona network.

In Arizona, 53% of high school graduates enroll in a postsecondary institution in their first semester after high school, but the number is significantly lower for underserved students. The Network for School Improvement will serve 23 Arizona high schools in Mesa Public Schools, the Phoenix Union High School District and the Tolleson Union High School District. The schools networked through the new project represent 16% of all high school seniors in Arizona and 56,000 students total; in these districts, 75% of students are Black or Latino, and 70% qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

“This program is a perfect example of a partnership with schools to be able to guide every senior toward higher education. That is so important because everyone should have that option,” said Edmundo Hidalgo, ASU vice president of outreach partnerships.

The Arizona Network for School Improvement will build on 16 years of work that Access ASU and Be A Leader have supported in each of these districts opening up access to higher education in Arizona. The project will leverage the relationships the groups have built with educators and offer strategy development, professional development, data tracking, virtual and texting strategies for students, identification of students who need specialized advising and more.

Mellissa Trujillo, president and CEO of the Be a Leader foundation, said she is gratified to see the project launch because it means students will start seeing the benefits firsthand. 

“We are thrilled to launch the project and begin the meaningful work of increasing postsecondary access to thousands of Arizona students,” she said. “It is exciting to witness the collaborative spirit already emerging, fostering so much growth and learning over the next five years among our team and partner school districts.”

Principals and administrators were at the Feb. 20 launch event at the University Club at ASU’s Tempe campus to kick off the Network for School Improvement and celebrate. 

“We are extremely fortunate to have been asked to participate in the program,” said Tolleson Union superintendent Nora Gutierrez. “We will be successful, I have no doubt. We have exceptional students, and I know they will rise to the challenge.”

The Gates Foundation K12 team invests in public schools supporting strategies to increase the number of Black, Latinx, and low-income students who graduate from high school and enroll in a postsecondary opportunity that allows them to succeed in life. The Networks for School Improvement support middle and high schools in their efforts to improve and better serve their students, with a particular focus on 8th and 9th grade on-track and on the completion of key steps in the college application and enrollment process. NSIs are a mix of school districts, charter management organizations, university-affiliated partners, and a wide range of national, regional and local nonprofits. They work with schools to identify and solve common problems using approaches that best fit their needs, learning what works and refining their approaches as they go. Together, the Gates Foundation NSI commitment amounts to $240 million to 30 NSIs in over 20 states. 

The program will be using a continuous improvement approach to pursue the Achieve60AZ goal that by 2030, 60% of adults in the state will hold a high-value credential. This approach is meant to set targets, act on them, use data to identify problems and select a strategy that will strive to solve them. 

The event concluded with a student panel and introduction of the continuous improvement approach with district and school leaders. Attendees received an in-depth explanation of the steps and actions that would be executed for the success of the Arizona NSI. 

Hearing from recent high school graduates firsthand added a central perspective to the work. Leslie Flores, a first-year student at ASU majoring in business entrepreneurship, spoke about her experience as a former peer mentor who worked on FAFSA completion rates when she was a student at Dobson High School.

Flores said that it is important for schools to share their successes and failures in reaching students so that “every school can be on the same page.” As a first-generation college student, resources like FAFSA helped make college possible for her. She’s a recipient of both the Obama and New American University scholarships at ASU. 

“Having those resources and someone from ASU work with students to start thinking about college, I  think that’s going to be awesome,” she said. “It will also probably help them feel more secure and more confident about applying.”

Hidalgo said there are so many resources available, but networking schools and organizations together helps harness the resources more effectively to reach more students and families. 

“We want to make sure that our teachers have the tools and the knowledge to be able to engage with the students,” said Hidalgo. “Seeing the Network come to fruition is exciting because we know that when we are building the K–12 pipeline for Arizona students, we are improving the economic futures of entire families and communities.”

Written by Carmen De Alba Cardenas and Hannah Moulton Belec