Improving graduation rates for young people most at risk of not graduating is not purely about coursework, credits, and grades. It’s also about building relationships, developing real world skills, and creating a plan for post-high school life. In early 2018, America’s Promise invested in three community and two statewide efforts to improve graduation rates for specific groups of young people. The five communities in the GradNation Acceleration Initiative are working to increase graduation rates for students in foster care, students of color, low-income students, and English Learners by creating strong relationships with youth and working to build the skills their young people need to thrive as adults.
The sites in the Acceleration Initiative root their work in the GradNation Action Platform, which highlights the need for integrated curriculum and programming that sets young people on a path to succeed in high school and in life. These five sites have also leaned into the idea that students who graduate with highly-developed social and emotional skills are more prepared to thrive as adults and take on the challenges that come in life after high school.
Over the last year, the GradNation team at America’s Promise has been working closely with these sites to learn more about what it takes to support students. The gains they’ve made in their communities are real, and we have learned that as they support young people on the path towards graduation, they are preparing youth with much more than a diploma.
One important takeaway from the first year of the Acceleration Initiative is that the non-academic factors that often prevent youth from thriving are precisely the factors that need to be addressed continuously in order for a student to succeed academically and graduate from high school. At the Greeley Alternative Program in Colorado, students who are at risk of not graduating from a traditional high school are given supports like childcare, counseling, health and mental health services, and non-traditional schedules to create strong conditions for learning. In Georgia, the Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) and the Multi-Agency Alliance for Children have partnered on Project Graduate 2.0, which provides direct service for youth in foster care. Unstable family lives can lead to disruptions in education which can prevent youth from graduating, so Project Graduate gives stability in the form of support to participate in extracurricular activities, housing assistance, and relationship-building.
In addressing barriers to learning, the Acceleration sites have implemented holistic programming that supports social, emotional, and academic development. The young people they serve are learning valuable tools like how to set goals and problem-solve, resolve conflicts and cooperate on a team, and cope with frustration and stress. These are the skills youth need to both reach the graduation milestone and navigate their adult lives. In the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Promesa addresses social and emotional needs for English Learners. As students work towards reclassifying out of English language acquisition courses, Promesa’s programming includes mentoring and community-building with near peers from local colleges who share similar experiences. In these supportive environments, English Learners can learn how to express their feelings and plan for the future.
We've also seen that students learn these real-world skills in Albuquerque, New Mexico. United Way of Central New Mexico’s education initiative, Mission: Graduate, helps students to achieve the skills laid out in the Albuquerque Graduate Profile. These skills, which include goal-setting and resilience, are learned through attendance awareness initiatives and career-and-community building events. As students in New Mexico gain these skills, they prepare to graduate from high school ready to succeed in college, careers, and in life.
“College and career readiness” is about more than crossing a graduation stage and enrolling in college courses. Young people have postsecondary goals that go beyond college, and the sites in the Acceleration Initiative are making sure that their students know what career options are available and how to achieve them. The Greeley Alternative Program, in addition to providing wraparound services that address social and emotional well-being, focus on placing students in real-world internships that are also paid. The internships are based in the community, with employers who want to hire from locally, which helps to produce supportive work environments. As students learn new job skills, and earn money for developing those skills, they are able to envision a future outside of the walls of high school – and have the tools to succeed in that future path.
Young people in the Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates program have dedicated classes about career preparation. Teachers called specialists teach lessons that range from resume-building and cover letter writing, to preparing for interviews and navigating a workplace. Students learn these lessons and practice employability skills through competitions, group projects, and events with external partners. Skills like perseverance, cooperation, and time management show up in their academics as well, and JMG boasts a 90 percent graduation rate for the students they serve.
As the practice and experience from the Acceleration sites show, students learn and succeed when their social, emotional, and academic needs are addressed. In the annual reports from the sites, we found data points signaling that approaches like these are improving conditions for young people. In Georgia, DFCS has noted that the number of students in foster care referred to educational support services – and the number of students who receive services once referred – has increased from 46 percent to 66 percent since 2017. The team in Albuquerque is shifting the district’s mindset from truancy to chronic absence, building data sets around a young person’s unique conditions. Additionally, the graduation rate for the Greeley Alternative Program has seen a three percent increase in graduation rates in the first year of the Acceleration Initiative. Improving graduation rates means addressing all the dimensions of learning--social, emotional, and academic--and these communities are leading in their efforts to support students holistically.