Not every kid who dreams of a college education or career is able to realize that goal—often because they lack the resources to take that next step. Such might have been the fate of Sean Kirkland, who ended up being the first in his family to attend college. Fortunately for Kirkland, his small-town high school offered something different.

For about 140 years, Salem High School in Salem, OH, has benefited from the Salem High School Alumni Association—and it paid tangible benefits for Kirkland, who now happens to be principal of the school. He received a scholarship from the school’s alumni association that played a key role in his going to college—and, in turn, influenced others in his family to attend. “It really changed things for me and for our family in determining where my siblings and I went, and now all our children. It is easy to underestimate what something like this does, what a boost [it] gives a kid and a family,” he says.

Last year, the Salem High School Alumni Association provided 97 scholarships totaling nearly $335,000 to students at the school. In fact, the association has donated a total of $7.2 million to students since the group started offering financial aid in 1908. The group provides about a third of the school’s seniors with scholarships based on merit or on their excellence in a field (including vocational pursuits).

Audrey Null, executive director for the association, says that the group has not only supported students, but it has also been a linchpin in the economically struggling community. The organization is active in supporting reunions and other alumni activities, offers aid in career and college exploration efforts, and is involved in a variety of community events. Its downtown office showcases a collection of about 10,000 items from former students. “They are a critical part of the culture here,” Kirkland says. “It is amazing how many students they have helped—and the role they have played here for so long.”

Making Alumni Programs a Priority

Not all alumni programs are as robust as Salem High’s, but most are successful when they connect the community, former students, and the school, says Allison Stamey, activities director at Lewisville High School in Lewisville, TX. Lewisville sits in one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, located just outside the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and the high school has grown to three campuses with more than 4,000 students.

“We work together to keep our alumni and community active in our school. It is a priority for us,” Stamey says. Among the events led by her student council is a community pep rally called Hey Day that involves alumni and local residents. “We feel that when the community and alumni are involved, it helps to make our school stronger.”

One outgrowth of that connection has been a unique scholarship program from a group of alumni who provide laptop computers to more than a dozen graduating seniors. Michele Ramsey, a professor at a Pennsylvania State University campus who grew up in Lewisville, helped start the program. “I had 12 years of caring, excellent teachers in Lewisville, and I can’t think of a better way to thank the school district,” Ramsey says. “I know that when students learn and succeed, a community becomes stronger.”

Effective alumni groups are able to grow in schools that make a strong connection with their students, but it’s important to have a structure for it in place, Kirkland says. That may mean creating an administrative position in the district, like the Richmond High School Alumni Association in Indiana has done. Director Bridget Hazelbaker serves in two distinct roles as a communications coordinator for the school district and also executive director for the alumni association.

District administrators created the position and encouraged her to take it, she says, because they saw the value in engaging the alumni, who now make up a database of more than 3,000.

The association’s scholarship program provides $3,000 to $6,000 to students with a GPA over 2.5 if they attend colleges in the county, and the monies are offered even to students who graduated years ago. (One 1973 Richmond High alumni just received funds for his return to school!) The alumni association gains support locally by positioning itself as “raising the education and skill level of the local workforce” and by helping to be an economic leader in the community.

Getting Started

Not many schools have the luxury of having an alumni relations member on staff, but more can be done in many high schools to explore the option of alumni associations. “When I look at the way colleges and universities connect 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 High School in Northfield, MN.

Often it just takes the initiative to start a program, Leer says, and then requires finding ways that alums can—and want to—help. Northfield High is beginning to work with a nonprofit that supports alumni outreach (see sidebar below). “It’s been my experience that alumni love to be involved. It often just requires asking them,” Kirkland says.

In addition to providing scholarships, alumni associations can support sports programs directly or as boosters; they can provide project-based learning through after-school activities or courses in which alums have expertise; or they can help support the office staff or teachers in a classroom occasionally, or with special events. At some schools, alumni who come from other countries are a valuable resource for ESL programs. Alums often can facilitate connections between schools and local businesses.

High school alumni associations can also be a vital link to colleges, says Ryan Rismiller, principal at Graham High School in Saint Paris, OH. He believes high school should prioritize college exploration and college readiness, and one facet of his Career Gears program is having college students, including alumni, speak to middle level and high school students. “It is critical to build these relationships and partnerships. It can really help students identify the pathways they want to be involved with upon graduation,” Rismiller says.

Implementing a Strategy for Recruiting Alumni

When developing a plan for recruiting alumni, keep these five things in mind:

  1. A check-in, a plan, and a person. In busy schools, projects such as an alumni engagement program can lose energy as the year winds down. Call for meetings to evaluate the effort throughout the year. Start small with a clear plan and specific goals for the group. The alumni association should fall under the responsibility of one school staff member, but eventually might be directed by of one of the volunteers or a committee. Think about involving former students who were leaders, because they may be likely to jump in and help out.
  2. Try something different. While reunions are great ways to keep former students engaged, think about new ways to involve former students so they feel valued, such as engaging them to help coach a sport, work on school gardens, or assist with school plays. Let active alumni participate in educational programs or attend school trips that students are taking. Some colleges offer a “subscription” approach that allows students lifelong involvement and learning; consider putting high school graduates in the same position. Engage alumni with smaller events or activities aimed at specific groups—a book club, for instance, or sessions for members of a tight-knit but less visible former team or group. (For instance, one cross-country team alumni group meets regularly at a northwest Pennsylvania high school.) And don’t forget activities for younger alums—maybe something that involves families with their children.
  3. Capitalize on key connections. Involvement of alumni requires that you provide them with opportunities for connections—to each other, the school, and the current student body. But it also brings the benefits of networking to the school and its students through the connections with the alumni, the community, and their associations. Connections like these at a school should be a primary goal of alumni engagement.
  4. Provide resources. Allow alumni to use school facilities for meetings or events, or offer free admittance to school functions. You want a team of adults actively participating in the school, and this can be an easy way to attract interest. Building an alumni program will pay for such expenses many times over.
  5. Tap into technology. Use social media. Give the alumni group a page on the school website and support from the staff that maintains the school’s site. Help them build a formidable online presence, and support it by retweeting and posting their material—and asking others to do the same. Develop and maintain a good database of alumni, and update it, perhaps with periodic e-blast reminders to update their information and provide data about others.

Kirkland says schools should use approaches like these, and be creative when they think about how to make connections to alumni. Schools can use traditional initiatives such as reunions and homecoming events, but should also consider adding new, untraditional ways to approach them. However you choose to engage your alumni, one thing is for sure: These connections can pay dividends for your school.

“We’ve had the good luck to have an alumni group that has supported the students here for years,” Kirkland says. “But it is something a school can build—and it is really a win-win, for the students and staff and the former students. They’ll all help build and support it, and it will pay off in a number of ways.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Sidebar: The Potential of Alumni Advocacy

Jeff Stein can hardly contain himself when he talks about high school alumni. And he doesn’t understand why high school administrators aren’t just as enthused. “In this age of thinking differently about underutilized resources and finding better solutions in education, it just makes sense,” he says. “Alumni advocacy has so much potential to support schools, inspire students, and reward educators.”

Stein is project director for Alumni Toolkit, part of an international nonprofit called First Future USA, whose mission is to “help public high schools strategically mobilize the greatest untapped resource in public education today—their alumni.”

The organization notes that alumni can help schools in several ways—serving simply as role models or mentors, but also inspiring students to get a postsecondary education, helping them with that process, and then providing them with a network of professionals. Plus, alumni often have expertise and resources that can be helpful to the school.

The Alumni Toolkit provides participants with resources to connect with alumni, as well as tools to engage them and direct their efforts. The resources also help with untangling specific problems such as concern about FERPA privacy laws or database management. Stein notes that it can be undertaken by individual educators, by a group, or by an administrator. 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.

Using the toolkit is currently free, supported by foundations, but officials expect 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 Del Rosario, principal at Bonita Vista High School outside San Diego, says he believes there is “tremendous promise” for work like Future First USA, which this year helped his school recruit 16 alumni. “It will allow us to mobilize our alumni in career networks and as role models, community partners, and local advocates who reflect the diversity of our students and share the common experience of growing up in our community,” he says.

Sidebar: Alumni Awards: A Case Study

Consider highlighting former high school students as a way to build interest in an alumni association. “For years, teachers at the school would wonder what happened to our former students. We also were aware that our district suffered from a lack of positive public relations about our academic success stories,” says Rosemary Bocella, a retired teacher at Bensalem Township High School just northeast of Philadelphia. “We wondered why we didn’t have a hall of fame for successful grads like the one for athletics.”

Bocella co-founded the Distinguished Alumni Award program at Bensalem Township High School, which recognizes about a dozen former students each year at a special reception with current students and the school alumni group. Recipients are honored on a prominent display in a main school hall.

Bocella notes the program provides current students with ideas for careers and information about college and work life. Award winners often speak to classes and become active in their schools, and she’ll hear Bensalem graduates comment about wanting to be recognized themselves.

“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.”