How Alabama substantially lowered its high school dropout rates

Case study from “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic”

Through its strong focus on building regional and local capacity for comprehensive school improvement, Alabama succeeded in raising its high school graduation rates from 62 percent to 69 percent between 2002 and 2008—significant growth compared to the rest of the country. Examining the path they took during that timeframe and initiatives currently underway will illustrate the key steps other states can take to move the United States from a dropout nation to a Grad Nation.

Alabama’s progress was charted in the report Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic recently released by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. While the main report finding showed that the U.S. graduation rate rose from 72 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2008, the report also noted that substantial efforts are vital to prevent regression and continue to the positive momentum. The report has corporate support from lead sponsor Target, AT&T and the Pearson Foundation.

Studying the progress made from 2002 to 2008 reveals that the commitment of Alabama’s leadership, including the Governor, the legislature, two state superintendents and the State Board of Education, to raise expectations for students and garner stakeholder support was a difference-maker. In addition, placing a strong focus on both teacher development and training, and establishing a network of supports yielded a net reduction of 26 dropout factories.

Their collaborative efforts helped more students are on track to receive their high school diplomas. Taking a closer look at their success during that span of six years also shows the results of concentrated efforts on boosting younger student performance in reading, math and science. The state saw a 30 percent decrease in K-3 reading problems and the highest national gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress on 4th grade reading in 2005 that was sustained in 2007.

The work of Alabama’s State Department of Education provides initial training to teachers and helps create networks among districts and schools to facilitate the sharing of ideas related to school reform. Extensive hands-on materials include reading guides, math and science curricular materials, kits for instructional efforts, success stories, guidebooks, and organizing templates for comprehensive reform and individualized innovation effort examples. The state also enlisted 25 graduation coaches back in 2006 to support struggling students and now involves 245 coaches statewide.

Moving forward to maintain that momentum, Alabama has become a leader in testing statewide early warning systems. Diplomas Now, a school turnaround model, combines the Talent Development secondary school transformation model with Communities in Schools and City Year, to provide community-based supports and interventions for students off-track in middle and high school. Diplomas Now is currently working in 10 large city school districts and will expand to 60 more schools. Preliminary results of the early warning program show significant declines in absenteeism, poor behavior, and course failure.

The following supports are currently underway in the state:

  • The ACCESS Distance Learning initiative enables students to enroll in a virtual school to have access to more than 100 online courses or interactive video-conferencing, whether for dual enrollment, AP review, or remediation, with new courses added each year. 
  • New policies were enacted to replace rigid seat time requirements with online performance demonstration, enabling a flexible 24/7 system of online credit recovery and elective courses that accommodated students’ varying extra-curricular activities, work obligations and family situations.
  • The pilot version of the K-12 Alabama Graduation Tracking System will be improved and implemented statewide this school year.

All of the state’s efforts to make dropout prevention a statewide priority, to set clear and high state standards, and broaden cross-sector collaborations have played an instrumental role in its continued progress. The supports they currently provide to help high school students earn their diplomas demonstrate that political involvement and curriculum changes