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Class of 2020 Outreach Extends Student-Staff Connections

October 21, 2020

Members of the Northfield High School Class of 2020 missed out on many traditional rites of passage last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But thanks to a unique outreach program, they received something previous classes haven’t had: an extra boost of support after graduation.

Through a partnership of Northfield Promise, the Northfield Public Schools, and national partner StriveTogether, 278 graduating seniors were matched with a high school staff member to ensure that the graduates felt supported throughout the transition from graduation to the next phase of their lives—whether they decided to join the workforce, enlist in the military, take a gap year, or continue their education.

Northfield Promise Alumni Coordinator Candace Godfrey said students in the graduating class were asked to list up to two staff members who had influenced them during high school, and then the students were matched with 65 staff members willing to participate in the five-month program.

“With COVID affecting everything, we wanted to make sure graduates had someone to bounce things off of,” Godfrey said. “Sometimes it’s just nice knowing someone’s thinking about you.”

Each month, from June through October, Godfrey sent staff a reminder email, with a theme and suggestions for questions to ask the graduates (for example, in August the theme was ensuring graduates had access to technology for their post-high school plans, particularly during the pandemic). The staff members were also asked to fill out a monthly survey that tracked the graduate’s emerging needs—things like internet access, transcript requests, a reference letter for a scholarship, and help in returning textbooks.

As a thank you, staff members received a small gift card to a local business for each graduate they agreed to connect with over the five-month period.

“A lot of staff reported how much fun it was to hear back from students. They’ve loved having that interaction during this uncertain time,” Godfrey said.

Jill Kohel, who teaches history and English at Northfield High School, was matched with two of her former students. She contacted them via email and text messages, and she helped one student with a letter of recommendation for a scholarship.

“Since I had initiated the contact with her and specifically asked if there was anything she needed, she felt comfortable asking for that help. During the summer months, students sometimes are uneasy about reaching out to teachers,” Kohel said.

“For me, the highlight has been that I was able to make a meaningful connection with a couple of students in a unique way. Under normal circumstances, there are multiple occasions to say goodbye to graduating seniors. This year, things changed very abruptly and those opportunities were missed.”

High School Spanish teacher Lori Taylor started with three students and added two more during the summer. She said their needs varied widely; she met in person a few times with one student who needed extra emotional support, while others who were set on their college plans politely responded to her texts but had no pressing concerns.

“These kids were sent off in a way that feels very disconnected, so I was all for doing this,” she said.

Northfield High School counselor Mark Ensrud said most of his 10 students stuck to their plans about what they wanted to do, post-high school. In late August, within a two-day period, he heard back from three of them: one was heading to boot camp, one was starting a construction program at a technical college, and one was headed to a state university.

“Those three hit such a wide spectrum of where our students go,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the outreach. We’re not just targeting one segment of the population, we’re trying to find out how everybody’s doing, regardless of their path.”

Whether graduates made extensive or minimal use of the program, Ensrud said he hopes it planted a seed for them so that they feel comfortable reaching out at a time in the future when they do have questions or need assistance.

“For anybody on a path after high school, reaching out to someone in your network is an essential skill to have,” he said.

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