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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Report on Dropout Rates: Who's Missing from Graduation Stages?

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

With cap-and-gown season in full swing, graduates are getting life advice from all corners. President Obama recently encouraged Morehouse College graduates to "work harder and dream bigger." Comedian Stephen Colbert turned momentarily serious at the University of Virginia, challenging grads to "decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want."

As similar celebrations play out on America's high school stages in the coming days, let's not forget about the missing faces. Some 1.3 million students won't graduate from high school on time this year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The national graduation rate of 69 percent drops below 60 percent for minority students, eroding their opportunities for a lifetime.

Yet there's reason for cautious optimism that those rates are improving. As Building a Grad Nation 2013 Annual Update reports: "For the first time the nation is on track to meet the goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the Class of 2020 -- if the pace of improvement from 2006 to 2010 is sustained over the next 10 years."

Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, a national expert on the dropout crisis, has shown that the process of dropping out begins long before a student reaches high school. Especially for children attending high-poverty schools, a combination of poor attendance, behavior challenges, and academic struggles by sixth grade will increase the odds of not completing high school. The good news is, intervention can make a difference -- if it starts early enough. Learn more about Banfanz's research in the Frontline program, "The Middle School Moment."

Responding Earlier

The Class of 2020 is just wrapping up the fifth grade. What will help increase their odds of success through high school?

There's no shortage of promising national programs and local initiatives, many of which take an early- warning approach to intervene sooner. Some of the most successful programs underscore the importance of community organizations working alongside schools to provide students with wraparound supports. Here are just a few examples:

In 2007, one in three students in Shelbyville, Indiana, didn't complete high school. By 2011, the graduation rate had soared to 90 percent, despite increasing poverty in the community. What changed? According to Building a Grad Nation, Shelbyville has adopted an early-warning system that tracks student data from pre-K through high school, and then provides a range of supports and options for students who are struggling. More personalized learning and positive school culture also contribute to student success, along with "an unrelenting belief in the abilities of all students to make it."

Communities in Schools is a national network working to improve graduation rates by partnering with schools facing the greatest challenges. CIS brings a public health approach to turning around the country's so-called "dropout factories." It combines prevention -- keeping the whole school healthier -- with intensive intervention to bring individualized case management to students most at risk of dropping out. By leveraging existing community resources, CIS is able to achieve life-changing results at an average cost of $200 per student per year. Read more about the evidence-based CIS model in "Keeping Kids in School."

Self Enhancement Inc., also highlighted in Building a Grad Nation, points to a graduation rate of 97 percent among youth served at its high-poverty partner schools. The nonprofit program (which happens to be based in my hometown of Portland, Oregon) starts working with children as early as second grade, providing everything from academic help to family services. Participants are matched with a coordinator who knows them personally and is available 24/7 to help them succeed. Summer and after-school programming adds enrichment, reinforcing the SEI motto: Life has options. Watch a TEDx talk by SEI founder Tony Hopson.

In a different way of thinking about addressing the dropout crisis, Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski of Big Picture Schools suggest connecting students with the world outside the classroom as a better way to foster success inside school. In Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates, they explain why internships, travel, service learning, and other real-world experiences give students more reason to care about what they are learning and why it matters.

What is your community doing to make sure all students are prepared to graduate from high school? Please share your suggestions in the comments.

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