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What’s Working: How Arizona Helps Young People Reconnect to School and Work

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

When young people don’t succeed, the entire community suffers the economic consequences for years to come.

This is the major takeaway from the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable report, “The Economic Effects of High School Non-Completion and Disconnected Youth,” which measures the economic impact of these two key groups on communities and the state.

Using data from the Arizona Department of Education, the latest U.S. Census, and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Records for 15 towns and cities across the state, the report estimates the lifetime cost to society when a student does not complete high school in any given locality.

“School and work are both central to our youth attaining the skills and resources they need to be successful in their lives,” said Paul Koehler, director of the policy center WestEd, the organization that convenes the Roundtable with support from America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson as a part of the GradNation State Activation initiative. “This report highlights the need for Arizona’s cities and towns to provide all of our young people with those opportunities to brighten their own futures and, in so doing, strengthen the economic development of the state.”

Over the course of a lifetime, the lack of a high school diploma is more likely to result in significantly lower earnings, poorer health outcomes, and greater involvement in the criminal justice system. Additional costs stem from increased reliance on government programs, lost worker productivity and lost government tax revenue.

Non-completion rate: 22%  | Disconnected Youth Rate: 15%

On average, Arizona loses an estimated $498,920 for each non-completer (young people who do not graduate high school on time) and $765,600 for each disconnected youth (young people aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor working). Across the entire cohort of young people who don’t complete high school on time, the state would lose $9.2 billion. If the state doesn’t help current disconnected youth enroll in school or find jobs, the report projects a loss of $96 billion.

Collectively then, not investing in young people could cost Arizona upwards of $100 billion.

But Arizona is taking action through local solutions. The report also describes the ways in which 15 localities are investing in education and ensuring that no young person slips between the cracks.

Here’s how three of those communities are working to keep young people on track towards completion, connection, and prosperity:

Avondale: Focus on Grade-Level Literacy

14% Avondale Non-completion Rate (Compared to 22% avg. in Arizona) and Maricopa County Disconnected Youth Rate of 12% (compared to AZ avg of 15%)Avondale, a city of over 83,000 that lies just west of Phoenix, has worked to lower its non-completion and disconnected youth rates by building cross-city partnerships to facilitate early childhood learning and develop better literacy rates across the board.

A key initiative is the city’s Read On Avondale program, which aims to increase grade-level reading proficiency for all children. Started in 2014, the program determined need, built literacy guides, provided library cards, donated books, and established an early childhood program. The program focuses on children with particular needs, including those in public housing and other vulnerable populations. A recipient of the 2017 All-America City award, the program has resulted in a 40 percent increase in summer maintenance or improvement of literacy skills and an 11 percent increase in third-grade students with grade-level reading proficiency.

Mesa: Start Young and Create a Culture of College-Readiness

21% Mesa Non-completion Rate (Compared to 22% avg. in Arizona) and Maricopa County Disconnected Youth Rate of 12% (compared to AZ avg of 15%)With four school districts, the largest of which serves over 63,000 students, Mesa has recently employed a two-pronged approach: increase access to early childhood education for all students and strengthen post-secondary opportunities. Using a community-oriented strategy, the city is expanding participation in early childhood education by increasing awareness, outreach, and access to existing programs.

Through a partnership between Mesa Public Schools and Mesa Community College, Mesa has also focused on connecting low-income youth to career pathways and postsecondary opportunities, including help with the college process. Six years ago, the city invited colleges across the country to establish campuses in Mesa. Benedictine University, Upper Iowa University, and Wilkes University created branches in Mesa and recruit from the local communities. Through such initiatives, the city intends to build a strong, local culture of attainment.


Tucson: Make Schools a Hub and Increase Attendance20% Tucson Non-completion Rate (Compared to 22% avg. in Arizona) | Pima County Disconnected Youth Rate of 15% and Tucson Disconnected Youth Rate of 15% (compared to AZ avg of 15%)

Since 2015, Tucson––the second largest city in Arizona––has prioritized the Community Schools Initiative, a program that places AmeriCorps volunteers in ten low-income middle and high schools across the city. These volunteers tutor students, help them develop post-secondary plans, enroll students in health care, offer food assistance as well as other services. The program aims to keep students in school and put them on track to success by making schools central, safe, supportive places in students’ lives.

Additionally, the city works to decrease chronic absenteeism through the Steps to Success program. Through home visits, staff, officials, and community members offer support and academic help to encourage middle and high school students who have dropped out to return to school. Since July of 2014, Steps to Success has re-enrolled 384 students.


To learn more about how other cities in Arizona are helping young people complete their diplomas and stay connected, check out the full report here.

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

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To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.