contentfeatured-contentmentIssue 9

Graduation Coaches Help Students Learn to Give 110%

by Dana Koster

A year and a half ago, United Way of Stanislaus County decided to shake things up. In the past, the charitable organization had focused on funding as many deserving nonprofits as possible, but kept running up against the same questions: what kind of change does United Way really make? Are people’s lives better?

“We support all these great agencies, from Hospice to Boy Scouts to The Salvation Army, but that makes our impact difficult to measure,” says Francine DiCiano, President and CEO of United Way of Stanislaus County. “We looked at the trend of our funding. For 48% of programs, we made up less than 10% of their funding. Although we help them, it’s a small drop in the bucket.”

DiCiano and her team wanted to maximize United Way’s impact within the community. So after an extensive year of research, they decided that they could make a tangible impact by focusing on increasing high school graduation rates. This past fall, they began an initiative dubbed the Graduation Coach Program.

students at whitboard

“We’ve always funded human services and programs for people in crisis,” says Amy Vickery, Vice President at United Way of Stanislaus County. “But those needs aren’t diminishing over time. The Graduation Coach Program is a proactive, long term solution to some of the biggest issues in our community.”

Data overwhelmingly shows that adults with a high school diploma out-earn those without. Because an increase in earning potential means a person is statistically much less likely to rely on public assistance, this can have a direct and long term impact on the overall health of the community. Evidence also shows that crime rates go down when the percentage of high school diplomas go up.

The problem the United Way identified is that many programs designed to increase graduation rates tend to center on high school students (because these students are chronologically closest to dropping out, they appear to be most at-risk), or on early education, where a student’s ability or inability to read can influence the rest of their academic career.

These methods leave out one important piece of the puzzle: middle school students—more specifically seventh graders—who are uniquely vulnerable in a number of ways. “It’s a traumatic transition from 6th grade, where you have a strong connection with one teacher and all these kids you’ve known for years,” Vickery says. “To go from that to six teachers who have so many more students—it’s hard. Parents also back off at that age because their kids are growing up and often don’t want their parents involved as much.”

Estrella Garcia, Vice President of Community Impact and Program Development at United Way, says the Graduation Coach Program has already begun to fill this gap. By identifying at-risk students in three middle schools in Stanislaus County and assigning them each an adult Graduation Coach who will track their progress, the program delivers the individual attention students need to stay on track and ultimately get their diplomas. 

“The Graduation Coach Program helps provide a support system,” says Garcia. “That’s at least one adult who cares about these kids, who shows encouragement and starts to facilitate that culture of education. It also links them to resources in the county to help them find the tutoring they need to improve academically.”

One of the biggest benefits of the program is that it establishes the Graduation Coach as a liaison between home and school life. “Schools aren’t equipped to do home visits,” Vickery says. “Because our Graduation Coaches are all bilingual, they can go into homes where there might be a language barrier. There wasn’t really anybody doing that in the past—a student would get marked absent or truant, and nobody was really checking in on them.”

The Coaches make it a point to call parents about positive changes, too, such as a decrease in tardies. “They don’t want to have a relationship where the students and parents are scared because the school is calling,” says Garcia. “That can make parents hesitant to talk with the school, so we work to get the good news out there, too.”

Currently, the Graduation Coach Program works with 120 students, but Vickery says that United Way hopes to increase that number in coming years. “With the opportunity to grow and expand this program, I think we’ll be able to turn things around and really change the economic future for this area.” 

In short, United Way can confidently say: yes, we do change things. People’s lives are better.   

To find out how you can help, visit and click on GIVE, ADVOCATE or VOLUNTEER.

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