800 Schools. 18 States. One Major Call to Action.

Monika Kincheloe

About one in 10 high schools in America graduates 67 percent or less, according to the recent Great American High School report that was released as part of the GradNation campaign.

In more than 800 of these schools, graduating is a 50-50 proposition for students. And on average, nearly three of every four students in these schools are students of color. 

For those of us focused on improving youth outcomes and focused on equity, the call to action just got very specific. 

Schools that graduate a third or less of their students will soon be identified for comprehensive supports, as required by federal law under the Every Student Succeeds Act. That is good news and important policy progress; prior to passage of the 2015 law, nothing had to happen in high schools with outcomes like that. 

The question now is: What will states and communities do to support the young people in these 800 schools?

But first: 

Where are These Schools?

These schools are concentrated in 18 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

Within these states, there are five types of high schools: 

  1. The large high school with a majority Hispanic student population;
  2. The big city high school; 
  3. The rural high school with a majority White student population; 
  4. The single high school in a small de-industrialized town; 
  5. The southern high school with a majority Black student population. 

Every state will release the names of these high schools at some time in the 2018-2019 school year. That is the accountability piece. But, perhaps more important, is the support piece. 

Once the schools are named, every adult working towards their success must be dogged in uncovering the needs of these young people and how to create a system that will meet those needs. 

How Do These Youth Experience High School? 

The education data tell us that students in many of these high schools are young men and women of color, and they come from low-income homes. They are more likely to be disciplined in a way that sends them to juvenile detention and miss 10 or more days of school each year. 

They have postsecondary aspirations, yet they may not have access to opportunities that set them on a path to, say, engineering or restaurant management. 

“The question now is: What will states and communities do to support the young people in these 800 schools?

But let’s be real: No high school-aged student lives as an education statistic. Research is beginning to reveal the complexity of adolescence as a time of significant brain development and rapidly changing exchanges with their environment. 

School is a component of a young person’s ecosystem that includes family, faith, and community, all of which influence how a young person experiences the high school years. 

So let’s flip the script. Rather than rely on statistics about youth that highlight what they are not getting, consider that high schoolers are young adults ideally positioned to benefit from relationships that will illuminate paths forward. Each of them is a vessel of opportunity.  

What Can We Do to Ensure the System Supports Youth? 


The schools described above are under immense pressures—pressures that will only intensify as new accountability systems take effect over the next year. Dedicated professionals have been doing the hard work of modifying practice to meet youth needs for a long time. 

The GradNation campaign has been surfacing, researching, and supporting best practice for the last 10 years. Youth in these 800 schools need a school and supporting community that can cultivate positive relationships with their peers and with adults. Schools cannot and should not do this alone. 

Understanding why a school struggles demands all adults to be a two-year old asking, “Why?” on repeat. And then they need to follow up with action. 

“Youth in these 800 schools need a school and supporting community that can cultivate positive relationships with their peers and with adults.”

Take the work of Promesa Boyle Heights, a GradNation Acceleration grantee and a cradle-to-career community organization working to improve youth outcomes and empower parents in a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles neighborhood. 

Director Deycy Hernandez and her team have strong, reliable relationships with LAUSD and have informed the district’s plan to better serve English learner (EL) students based on their high school programming experience. 

At one high school, impressive overall gains in the graduation rate hid a disparity between EL and non-ELs, 30 percent compared to 82 percent. Repeatedly asking “why” led Promesa to prioritize a three-pronged approach: EL student services, school staff professional development, and youth and parent empowerment workshops. 

With many ELs who are also receiving special education services, Promesa’s parent trainings are critical, so parents are equipped with the knowledge and questions to be advocates for their kids’ education. 

Related Story: The Next Phase of the GradNation Campaign
Related Story: Three Ways Communities Can Work Together to Support English Learners 

That’s just one example among many. The GradNation Action Platform, an evidence-based framework based on the collective experience and expertise of practitioners in the field as well as young people, highlights six areas to raise high school graduation rates. 

These are by no means silver bullets, but what we’ve learned is that a deliberate and concerted effort to support these action items over time has led to improved graduation rates in states and communities across the country. 

And we can do the same for these 800 high schools. Their success will put thousands of young people on the path to adult lives of opportunity and growth, and favorable policy conditions under ESSA and creative community-wide efforts will put progress within reach. 

Want more stories like this one delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for our biweekly digital newsletter here