More than 1,000 members of the 2020 graduating class streamed out of the Central Medford High School gymnasium Wednesday afternoon. The smiling fifth-graders blinked in the bright glare of the sun, the words of their fellow classmates who read poems, sang songs and offered words of inspiration still fresh in their minds.
They are the children of the BIG IDEA — a partnership between United Way of Jackson County, the Medford School District and Evergreen Elementary School in Cave Junction — that has a goal of producing a 100 percent high school graduation rate for the class of 2020, said Dee Anne Everson, executive director of the local United Way agency.
"We need them as much as they need us. It is in our enlightened self-interest to want these kids to succeed," Everson said of the 1,053 students, gathered from 17 separate elementary schools — 16 from the Medford district, plus the Cave Junction school.
Each student will receive help with their basic needs and their specific wishes to link them with programs that can provide for medical and dental needs, supply them clothing or YMCA memberships or one-on-one mentoring, Everson said.
"This is not a new program. It is a movement to engage and inspire," Everson said. "We are linking and leveraging programs that already exist in our community to ensure greater success."
Medford schools currently have a 64 percent high school graduation rate. That means, Everson said, the community is failing one in three children.
While programs such as Kids Unlimited and the YMCA have stimulating youth programs, they are not full. By law every Oregon child is entitled to medical care. But many don't receive it.
Those roadblocks to success are all issues Everson is hoping the community-based movement will change.
"We can't keep failing one out of three kids," she said. "We can't. It's beyond unreasonable. There is something every member of this community can do to participate in this movement."
Everson said she hopes to attract a huge cadre of volunteers to help fill out medical forms for uninsured children. La Clinica and student nurses from Oregon Health and Sciences University will perform health risk assessments on those students, she said.
"We now have kids who suffer from obesity, who have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, who have adult-onset diabetes," Everson said. "We need to connect these kids to health care."
At Wednesday's event, Kids Unlimited, ScienceWorks and the YMCA gave out day passes and summer camp scholarships. The Ashland Independent Film Festival and L.I.F.E. Art represented freedom of expression.
The students carried green bags filled with coupons and gifts as they grabbed a slice of pizza and gathered on the athletic field for a mini-concert from local actor/musician and Southern Oregon University student Tanner Richie.
Wednesday was the first time all of these young people would gather together. But it won't be the last, said Julie Hill, principal of Ruch Elementary School.
"It's great to be a fifth-grader today," Hill said, beaming as she watched the kids pass by.
Fifth grade is a pivotal year for students, Hill said, noting it's a time where they begin to become their own individuals, make choices for themselves and "find their place in the world."
"We can teach them reading and math. But this is the step that really counts," Hill said. "It's important we start celebrating their success. I'm going to be there at their graduation in 2020."
Each child at Wednesday's gathering had written a letter to United Way detailing what it would take to graduate. One needed a science book. Others wanted iPads. Some hoped their parents could get a job or help with their bills, Hill said.
"One child wanted to learn social skills so they could make friends," she said.
It's not just adults who need to step up to make the movement successful and sustainable. The fifth-graders must learn to "pay it forward" so their good fortune in being selected for the BIG IDEA spreads to their siblings, classmates and the community, Hill said.
Everson wants each fifth-grader to become a SMART reader by the time they're in seventh grade and read to younger students.
"I want them to show up. I want them to lead the way," Everson said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.