YWCA Southeast Wisconsin

As soon as COVID-19 began to surface in Milwaukee, leaders at the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin became worried about the interruption the public health crisis would cause in education, particularly those at risk of not completing high school.

The nonprofit, which provides one of the largest community-based adult education programs in southeastern Wisconsin, knows the value of a high school level credential. Since 2013, it has graduated more than 800 students through its program, and the number of students is growing dramatically with YWCA SEW’s expanded remote learning opportunities.

Making sure students get their high school level credential “is the first step toward assuring individuals have the tools to build their own economic future,” said Ginny Finn, YWCA SEW’s president and CEO.

Given its expertise and awareness of the digital divide that existed among its own adult education students, its leaders thought about how it could use its existing service model to address a developing urgent need.

“There will be students who aren’t able to finish high school or who will have a bigger hill to climb because of things that COVID-19 did to the community,” Finn said. 

YWCA SEW staff talked through a concept with staff from the Foundation as well as Milwaukee Succeeds, the educational partnership that the Foundation helped launch in 2011. With support from a $27,000 MKE Responds Fund grant, it ultimately crafted a program that primarily targeted a specific demographic of junior and senior high school students who often encountered their own share of barriers to success – individuals within the foster care system.

While YWCA SEW had the track record in delivering the programming, its success in bridging the digital divide with its adult education students was rooted in its partnership with Digital Bridge, a sister nonprofit that secures donated computers and refurbishes them. With Digital Bridge’s agreement to partner in this specialty effort, YWCA SEW reached out to agencies serving those in foster care to get referrals of students at risk of not graduating and who needed a computer.  

“Providing laptops rather than Chromebooks to students near high school completion meant this project could provide distinctive value,” said Finn, noting that YWCA SEW chose laptops because students need access to all the tools they need to finish their education and cope with the complexity of a COVID-19 world. Students in need of counseling services, for example, could access them remotely through a laptop. They could also apply for jobs or connect with other service providers. 

Within a matter of a week, YWCA SEW and Digital Bridge were able to begin distributing laptops and provide students the “helpline” support needed for success.  The goal: reach 270 students so they can continue their remote learning. Those students who do not finish their traditional high school program will already be connected to YWCA SEW so they can transition to its high school equivalency diploma program or general education degree preparation programs and finish their high school level credential without delay.  

“We want to make sure they can continue to build their lives,” Finn said.

With additional philanthropic support, Finn said the YWCA SEW/Digital Bridge partnership could easily ramp up the program and expand the number of students it serves.

“The system exists, the computers are there and we have the expertise to put it all together” she said.

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