Viacom, Get Schooled, Taco Bell, Kendrick Lamar Head to Alaska

Marie_Groark_2009 by Marie Groark, Executive Director, Get Schooled

In 2009, when Viacom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Get Schooled Foundation with a star-studded event in Hollywood, the wilds of Alaska couldn’t have seemed farther away.

Bethel Regional High School, with a student body of about 500, was dubbed a dropout factory.   That means that historically fewer than 60% of its students graduated from high school.  For many of the students and families in Bethel, who had long earned a living off the land through fishing and hunting, education was not seen as a key to life success.   Growing up in a town where there are no roads in or out, thinking beyond Bethel was not always easy to do.

But when Janelle Vanasse, the principal of Bethel received the news that her school had been labeled a ‘drop out factory’ in a national report, she was motivated to make some significant change.  No longer was the status quo acceptable.

Under Janelle’s leadership, Bethel Regional High School has become a beacon for the students, families and the town.  No longer are students allowed to think about what they could NOT do because they are from Bethel, but what they CAN do because they are from Bethel.  Being from a small town in the outer reaches of the United States is not to be seen as a liability but an asset.   Not only is it not OK to drop out of high school, but students needed to think about furthering their education, perhaps even traveling outside of Bethel to do so, with an eye toward coming back to Bethel armed with skills and know how to continue to improve life for its residents.

And this is where Get Schooled came in.  In the midst of the transformation, Bethel entered one of Get Schooled’s trademark “challenges,” friendly competitions across schools where students earn points for themselves and their schools by engaging in a series of activities designed to help them accelerate their college planning process.   Under the leadership of their student council, Bethel Regional High School threw themselves behind the Challenge. The entire school got involved.  For example, the student council announced over our school’s PA system about a Twitter town hall with one of the nation’s foremost experts in financial aid – and a majority of students in Bethel, Alaska were able to ask questions and get them answered.

When the dust settled, Bethel Regional High School was the national winner, and more importantly, the school was transformed.  Nathaniel Betz, college and career counselor at Bethel,  told us it took Bethel one year what they thought would take 10:  every student in Bethel was thinking about college and 83% of the senior class had applied to college.  Bethel was a dropout factory no more.

On August 29, Get Schooled joined Taco Bell CEO, Greg Creed; leadership from the Taco Bell Foundation for Teens; MTV News correspondent Sway Calloway; Viacom and its umbrella for social responsibility Viacommunity; along with our celebrity principals for the day James Harden and Kendrick Lamar to recognize the efforts of the staff and students at Bethel High School.    The students celebrated, got autographs and heard incredible messages from their guests about leadership, education and college.  “Never let anyone tell you you are not college material,” Kendrick Lamar told a rapt audience of 500 students, “You won’t know if you are college material or not unless you step on that college campus and give it a try.” You can check out MTV’s coverage of the event, above, and BET’s, below.

Our experience in Bethel reminded us that the recipe Get Schooled was founded on – using the sizzle inherent in Viacom brands to drive students to take the substantive steps required to succeed in their education – is a winning one.  If we can do it in Bethel, we can do it anywhere.

Marie Groark is Executive Director of the Get Schooled Foundation.

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