With graduation season coming to a close, we have seen more students than ever before walk across the stage and pose proudly for keepsake photos. The national high school graduation rate is at a record high, averaging 81.4 percent across all states and groups of students.
Here in Louisiana, 75 percent of students in the class of 2014 (the latest year for which the data are available) graduated high school, up from 71 percent just three years ago. The numbers for East Baton Rouge Parish are lower, at 66 percent, up from 63 percent in 2011.
A new report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, gives us a close-up on national, state and large district graduation rates, as well as factors contributing to, and inhibiting, the progress. The report uses the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate for 2013, a new national measure of graduates.
We are making progress in increasing graduation rates not because of broad demographic and economic trends but because the leaders of schools, districts, communities and states are working hard to drive change. We are seeing that big progress is possible, even in challenged districts and states.
Louisiana and East Baton Rouge schools face very real challenges. The state has the nation’s seventh-highest rate of child poverty with 26.5 percent of youngsters living in poor homes. More than half of the state’s public school students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. In East Baton Rouge, more than 81 percent of students live in low-income families by this measure. According to the Grad Nation report, most states, including Louisiana, graduate low-income and minority students at significantly lower numbers than their middle/upper-income and white peers.
Just as new graduates cannot rest long on their laurels, neither can the nation, Louisiana or our local schools afford to slacken off. With the national goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020,the state and local districts and communities must step up to bring Louisiana’s graduation rate up nearly 15 percentage points in six years. Graduating 90 percent of the state’s seniors would mean 7,500 more students graduate in the class of 2020 than did in the class of 2013, according to the report (310,000 students nationwide, or roughly three Tiger Stadiums full of additional graduates).
There are promising solutions, if we have the will as a community to reach and exceed the 90 percent goal by 2020. Based on graduation rate data, we know which schools to focus our efforts on, and we can put in place strategies that have shown promise recently. While early childhood is critical, the most treacherous period is from age 11 to 21. At the very moment young people are the most developmentally vulnerable, support from schools, foster care, the health system and child protective services gets weaker, while reactions from the justice system become harsher. The students’ family responsibilities often increase, and their neighborhoods turn meaner. Middle and high school experience becomes make or break.
What if we reorganized schools with teams of teachers who shared a common group of students? What if we added more time for English and math and offered coaching for teachers and principals? What if we welcomed students to school, called them if they didn’t show up and helped with homework? What if we used an early warning system that identified students struggling with attendance, behavior or course performance and worked to get each student back on track?
Those additional graduates in the class of 2020 would have a great impact economically and socially in Louisiana. A high school diploma is the first step to a productive work life, contributes to better health and reduces an individual’s likelihood of scrapes with the law. So while the country and many cities and towns justifiably celebrate their progress in graduation rates, we must address the challenge ahead.
Our experience in schools across the country and our research into dropouts and graduation rate growth over the past 15 years clearly show that those states, districts and schools that do the work, consistently and over the long haul, see progress. That’s the lead our schools need to follow.
Robert Balfanz is a research professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and the director of the Everyone Graduates Center. Ryan Mattingly is the Baton Rouge Field Manager for Talent Development Secondary, an evidence-based school improvement program.