Diplomas Now

Robert BalfanzRobert Balfanz is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts in Educational Excellence for African Americans.


My professional work has revolved around figuring out what it will take to enable all our students to graduate from high schools prepared for adult success. I believe our current outcomes are an affront to what America can and needs to be. Far too many of our students, especially students of color who live in poverty, fail to graduate from high school. The good news is that, for the first time in forty years, the nation’s high school graduation rate is improving, and at a significant rate. Over the past four years, the graduation rate has increased by five percentage points. Those gains have been driven by improvements in the graduation rates of African American and Latino students, the very students for whom the dropout crisis has been the most acute. Much work, however, remains in order to insure that all students have the educational experiences and supports they need to graduate from high school prepared for college and career. This is essential because there is no work in the 21st century which can support a family without high school diplomas.

The challenge that remains for African American students is that, even with the progress of the past five years, one in three students do not graduate with their class, and one in four attends a high school where graduation is not the norm. About 11 percent of high schools, 1400 in number, produce half of the nation’s African American and Latino dropouts. Nearly all these high schools, in turn, educate students who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. To move forward, we must organize our efforts. We must not only turnaround these schools and insure they provide a quality education which prepares their students for success, but we must also insure that students within the school have the supports they need to overcome the challenges of poverty. Poverty makes it more difficult for students in the nation’s low-graduation-rate high schools to come to school every day, pay attention in class, and get their school work done. Research shows that the best teachers and most evidence-based curriculums will have muted impacts if students are not able to attend, focus, and try.

Fortunately, it is being demonstrated more and more that the hungry bear of poverty can be pushed back. Whole school instructional and teaching improvements can be enhanced through the use of early warning systems and better targeted student supports provided by a growing number of non-profits and community organizations using evidence based strategies. These solutions will keep many more students on the path to high school graduation. The “Our Diplomas Now” program, for example, is showing that chronic absenteeism, behavioral struggles, and course failures in our most challenged schools can be cut in half or more.

Yet to truly provide all students who live in poverty with reliable pathways to adult success, bolder action will be needed. We need an innovation competition to re-design middle and high school so that it will be routine for students who live in high poverty communities to take and succeed in high school credit-bearing classes in eighth grade, and college credit-bearing classes in twelfth grade. This will provide students with direct experience to the expectations of the next level of schooling, while still providing the familiarity and support of their current school, where they are seen as the most advanced rather than the least experienced students. This is critical because we know it is in the transition years – sixth grade, ninth grade and the first year of college – when most of our high poverty students fall off the path to high school graduation and post-secondary success. As importantly, this plan would enable students to complete college in three years, which means financial aid can be spread over fewer years, increasing the amount available each year. Finally, what would have been the fourth year of college can be used as a year of community and national service (in exchange for enhanced financial aid), working in the highest-needs schools to provide the person-power needed to give students the tutoring, mentoring, role models, nagging, and nurturing they will need to overcome the challenges of poverty and succeed in more demanding courses.

There is one final component that will be required. It was driven home to me during a visit to a school we were helping in Chicago. The ninth grade class was reading “A House on Mango Street,” and the teacher, as a discussion prompt, asked the class, “if [they] could, would [they] leave their neighborhood, and, if so, why.” Almost every single student said they would, and almost every one of them said it was because of their near-daily exposure to violence. Part of me at that moment felt that, instead of seeking to improve the school, we should be organizing an evacuation. But then, one student said it was only worth leaving if the violence did not follow them. What we need to acknowledge is that within the sub-set of schools which drive the dropout crisis, there is a further sub-set, which needs to take on a therapeutic role, one that both helps students cope and overcome the negative and often crippling aspects of exposure to violence, and one that shows that alternatives to violence exist. The truth is, in our most impacted neighborhoods, the public school is often the only societal institution with a physical presence in the community. As such, it needs to offer more than just academic instruction; it needs to provide students with the academic and non-academic experience and supports they need to thrive. Right now, schools are not resourced for this mission. To do this, we will need to become much better at integrating the funds and efforts currently housed in other city, state, and federal social service and justice agencies, usually disconnected from the schools, into a set of preventative, therapeutic, and wrap-around supports provided in the schools in our most challenged neighborhoods.

Robert Balfanz is a professor at Johns Hopkins University

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