Eyes on the Prize
20/20 Leadership encourages high school students to lead successful, connected lives.
They created a fitness trail and a program about the perils of teen pregnancy. They visit with prison inmates about how to avoid a life behind bars. They strive to earn college scholarships, including one for $10,000 from the Kansas City Royals.
They’re part of a program in the Kansas City area that may not be that well-known to those outside the educational system but undoubtedly has made an impact on thousands of high school students on both sides of the state line.
It’s called 20/20 Leadership, named with the idea of keeping 20/20 eyesight on a bright future full of opportunity, community connection and a joyful career.
“When you fall in love with a job, it isn’t a job anymore,” says Marilyn Alstrom, the program’s founder and executive director.
The program started in 1993 with just 36 students and has grown to include 2,650 alums. It’s geared toward juniors and seniors but is expanding to also encompass freshmen and sophomores. In addition, graduates of the program return as alumni leaders, working as trainers, mentors, board and advisory members, and selection committee members.
The nonprofit program is not housed in any one school district, but rather area school districts pay to participate, with additional funding coming from grants, foundations and businesses. Participating public school districts on the Missouri side include Kansas City and Hickman Mills. On the Kansas side, participants include the public school districts of Bonner Springs, Kansas City, Piper and Turner.
“I am so impressed with the different aspects of the program,” says Sharon Showalter, who is coordinator of the International Baccalaureate program at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, and a former English teacher there. “It just seems to touch on everything that I feel a student will need to know.”
The program’s mission statement says it all: To educate and expose students to community issues, teach leadership skills and build community-wide relationships, all of which encourages success in life. Ultimately 20/20 Leadership creates a stronger workforce and a more involved community.
Statistics show that students who participate in the program are more likely to stay in high school and enroll in a post-secondary institution.
“20/20 is an experiential program,” Alstrom says. “What it does is enhance what they’re learning in the classroom because many times if students stay in the classroom, they’re in a box. So they truly don’t understand workforce development and what that means.”
Its curriculum includes personal development, personal choice, college preparation, career exploration, entrepreneurship, economics, finances, community and cultural awareness, local and state government, understanding the law, social services, a metro art tour and project-based learning.
“The curriculum has been developed over the years to enhance the kids’ knowledge, to provide a connectivity for them, to let them have fun but also for them to truly understand that there’s a place in the world for them, they just have to find it,” Alstrom says. “Education is power. Education gives them the choice of how they want to live and the types of jobs they have. Once kids start to understand the power they have through education, it becomes a little bit easier for them to go school every day and to really focus on their GPA.”
The students work together as a team, exploring the roles they can play in their community. One example of that is the fitness trail, which was prompted by teens from J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas, after they learned about the county’s high obesity rates. They raised the money to create the trail at the school.
20/20 Leadership students have the opportunity to apply for scholarships, like the five $10,000 All-Star scholarships awarded by the Kansas City Royals. Monthly “program days” allow students to visit with their peers from other schools at outings to such places as Jefferson City and Topeka to meet with state lawmakers. They also visit social service agencies to see firsthand the needs within their communities. Visits to area prisons have struck a chord.
“We tell our students, ‘We are one choice away from wearing orange ourselves,’” Alstrom says. “‘When you can make decisions based on your knowledge, it helps you understand yourself a little bit more. ’”
For Desmond Glynn, 21, the program particularly instilled in him the importance of networking.
“They pushed us to get out of our comfort zone and meet a lot of new people,” says Glynn, a 2013 graduate of Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, who now is a paralegal for a law firm. A graduate of Penn Valley Community College, Glynn is considering pursuing a career as a lawyer. He was presented with 20/20 Leadership’s Best Alumni award this year.
Crystal Nance is a shining example of how leadership skills can propel a student to succeed. She is the first alumna of the program to actually work for it full-time. She’s been its program director since July 2015.
“Crystal was a good match,” says Alstrom. “She works with kids very well. And schools have been really happy with her. To have someone stand in front of the students and be able to say, ‘I’ve sat in your chair 10 years ago, and today I stand in front of you,’ that’s a pretty powerful message.”
Nance, 28, a 2006 graduate of Lincoln College Preparatory, is also a 2010 graduate of Drake University, earning a degree in sociology and public relations. She went on to earn a master’s in education from Northern Arizona University in 2012.
“She seriously is the most amazing woman I’ve ever met because I know she was very, very close to every school,” says Samantha Torres, 17, who just finished her junior year at F.L. Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kansas, and was a primary driver in the teen pregnancy prevention program. “She always made our group feel special, and she was always very supportive, even the crazy ideas. She was always so helpful. Even in the middle of the night when I would text her for last-minute advice, she was always helpful from the smallest things to the biggest. I’m extremely glad they chose her as the director of 20/20.”
For Nance, that personal connection with students brings her the most satisfaction.
“I love it when students feel comfortable coming to me with just about anything and know that they are an important part of my life,” she says. “And they do care about me as much as I care about them.”
She says at first students don’t even realize the impact the program can have on them, particularly on their monthly field trips around town.
“The initial draw for 20/20 is ‘Ooh, we get out of school,’ to be frank and honest,” she says. “But then they realize, ‘OK, I’m learning more than I even expected.’”
For more information about 20/20 Leadership, visit 2020leadership.org.