Thursday was a celebration at Union High School.
For the Class of 2019, it was Decision Day. With the junior class looking on, one by one the graduating seniors walked across the stage in the UHS gym and announced where they would be taking the next step in their journey.
The day also marked a celebration for Union’s first-year college and career counselors, Megen Poynter and Haley Soetebier. The two have spent the year working with UHS students to help them make a decision for their future.
Poynter and Soetebier are at UHS through a partnership between the district and The Ayers Foundation and rootEd Alliance. That collaboration also was celebrated at the event.
“It was hard to envision what this event was going to be,” Union Superintendent Dr. Steve Weinhold said. “We were bringing all the partners together for the first time. We also were doing Decision Day, knowing it was all about the students, but the background is so important. How did they get to Decision Day? How did the counselors get here? Finally it’s all coming together.”
A New Program
A few years ago the district was approached by Class of 1977 graduate Byron Trott. With the goal of improving postgraduate opportunities for students in rural communities, Trott was wondering how he could help.
“He came to me with this vision a few years ago,” Weinhold said. “I had this vision of wanting to increase the number of kids going to college and career programs. We got together and we’re like, this is awesome for what we’re trying to do. He has the financial resources to do it.”
That led to the creation of rootEd Alliance, a philanthropic effort supported by a group of Missouri families, the Trott Family Foundation, and BDT & Co., a Chicago-based merchant bank founded by Trott.
Prior to the start of the 2018-19 school year, rootEd Alliance teamed up with Jim and Janet Ayers, who created the Ayers Scholars Program over 20 years ago in Tennessee to ensure that every student has the opportunity to access postsecondary education.
Together with rootEd Alliance, they expanded their high-impact college access program to Union.
Trott and The Ayers were on hand at Decision Day to see how the system works up close. They got to see a parade of students announce their future plans.
Weinhold said the goal is to have 100 percent of the graduating class earn a certificate of some sort. Trott and rootEd have the same goal, Weinhold said.
“We want them to have a goal,” Weinhold said. “We want them to have a plan. At a minimum, we want them to have a certificate so we know that they have something that they can take away and have forever.”
Thursday more than 90 percent of students announced they had a plans for life after high school.
To help reach that number, the college and career counselors have been working with the students. The counselors help the students with crucial steps like filling out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms.
“That’s always a big one,” Weinhold said. “These kids, they often don’t even know where to start. Now they have these counselors here at school working with them and guiding them along.”
The counselors are an idea used by the Ayers Foundation. Weinhold said when the district was looking for how to implement a program, it saw the success of the Ayers programs.
Through Trott, the groups became connected. The counselors are actually employed by the Ayers Foundation, Weinhold said.
The district has been told the counselors will be funded for at least three years.
“It’s been wonderful,” Weinhold said.
The next step is spreading the program, which was why Margie Vandeven, the state’s commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, was on hand to witness Decision Day. Weinhold said it was the first time the state’s commissioner had ever been to Union.
“Having the commissioner here was a big step to having this program expand into the Missouri market,” Weinhold said.
The goal of rootEd Alliance is to work in high schools and community colleges to provide students with advice, college and career exposure, and access to financial resources. The program is not just geared toward sending kids to college, but also other programs to help prepare for a future after high school.
Union High School is not alone in the program. The rootEd Alliance has already begun in nine communities across Missouri and Tennessee, working with more than 2,000 students. In addition to Union, Cape Girardeau Central High School, Lebanon High School, Marshfield High School, Poplar Bluff High School, and Warrenton High School in Missouri, and three high schools in Lawrence County, Tenn., are part of the rootEd program.
“The common focus is helping students,” Weinhold said.
Participating community colleges include Ozarks Technical Community College and Three Rivers College. The rootEd Alliance will continue to expand to new schools this fall.
The rootEd Alliance pilot program has been made possible by BDT & Company and a group of family business owners and individuals, including the Trott Family Foundation, Steward Family Foundation, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Barbara and Andy Taylor and the William T. Kemper Foundation and others.