Long story short, I now have an email list of over 40 members of that class, and I just submitted an ad signed by 26 of us, with total contributions of over $1500. Everyone who responded was happy to give, and amount varied based on what people could do (I made no specific request in terms of amount). I have already heard that both honorees are extremely gratified by the gesture, and it was certainly nice to be back in touch with many people that I spent up to 10 years in school with yet have had minimal, if any, contact with for well over a decade.
What I want to highlight in this process is the role that the school itself played, not because it was dismaying to me, but because it was so representative of the role that so many other schools would have played in a similar situation. I approached the school to see what current information they had on my classmates to see if they could help me locate people. The first thing I received was a list of 12 names, with no email addresses and only the home addresses of their parents. A few weeks later, someone from the school scanned and sent me the pages in the back of our yearbook with everyone's contact information from the day we graduated (obviously no email back then). In other words, the school had no official record of where 75 of its graduates had been since the day that they left.
As I said, there is nothing unique about that - and I should point out that the school has been extremely helpful in other ways throughout the process and is encouraging my classmates and myself to attend the dinner. But, while I have not done a survey, and certainly have not compared schools in competitive markets versus schools that are focal points of small communities, my gut impression is that schools that say good-bye to their students after 8th grade really do say good-bye. Yes, the graduates may come back for a visit early in 9th grade, but eventually they become entrenched in their new schools, form new connections with new friends and teachers, and look back on their elementary school days as perhaps fond memories, but not as any continuing part of their lives.
In one sense, this is perfectly understandable. While students may spend ten years in a K-8 institution, they are not years where those students are generally ready to form deeper and more lasting relationships, and certainly not such relationships with teachers. Both intellectually and emotionally, students in high school and beyond are more capable of forging connections with teachers as those teachers help them through the various developmental issues and crises that arise in the teenage years (thus prompting the lament that people fly in their Rebbe from shanna alef to be at their wedding, but fail to invite their 6th grade Rebbe who lives down the block).
But from a school perspective, how hard is it to keep even a minimal connection with these students? Reach out to them once a year while in high school, perhaps inviting them to a tisch with a favorite teacher or having them help out with a school event. Maintain a database of email addresses and send out an email each year asking them to keep their information current. Start a Facebook page aimed specifically at alumni to keep them in the loop about what is going on in the school. The possibilities are both endless and virtually cost-free.
And here is the payoff (at least one of them): I just raised $1500 from alumni who had had no connection with the school for two decades. I would guess that if the school would take this list and contact all of us again next year, some of us would still be happy to give a small amount, and I would posit that they could collect $1000 in small donations. Now imagine if a school did that with every class that had graduated. While the new graduates would not donate much (and perhaps should not be approached), a school that has graduated 30-40 classes (such as the school in which I teach) could raise enough to send one or two kids to school just based on these good-will nostalgia-fueled donations.
More than that, maintaining a connection demonstrates that the school possesses a long-term interest in its students, that it truly believes that it serves a vital, guiding role in the lives of these children, and therefore it wants to see where they go, what they do, how they turn out. That type of caring is rarely ignored or overlooked, and ultimately helps to shape and define the nature of the school itself.