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The Next Phase of the GradNation Campaign

Monika Kincheloe
After teaching fourth grade in rural Arkansas, I returned years later for my students’ high school graduation. The class was much smaller than I expected it to be. The chairs were so spaced out on the football field that two chairs could have fit in between each one.
Who should have been in those missing seats? Some students had moved away from this rural town, but there were others who should have been there.
I know one student had a single encounter with a police officer that landed him in juvenile detention for most of his sophomore year. Another student struggled after the domestic violence in his home ended in homicide. The graduation rate over those years was about 83 percent—on par with the national average. But there was more to that number.
Since leaving the classroom, I’ve worked on education issues for the federal government, a teachers’ union, and now at America’s Promise, a nonprofit where I help lead the GradNation campaign to raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that we must employ diverse systems and supports to get more young people to high school graduation.
What would it have taken to re-engage the young man who spent his sophomore year in juvenile detention? How can we help young people dealing with violence and trauma at home succeed in the classroom? As we enter the final stretch of the GradNation campaign, where should we focus most of our energy?
The answers can be found in the new GradNation Action Platform, a set of six action areas for states and communities to raise graduation rates and support student success. We compiled them based on the collective experience and knowledge of researchers, practitioners, and young people:
1. Use high quality data to monitor progress, identify struggling students, inform effective interventions, and provide accountability.
Any effort to increase graduation rates should be informed by student-level data that tells the story of how students are progressing through high school, identifies barriers to success, and focuses on what it takes to get them back on track to graduation.
But data is more than test scores. We need numbers on absenteeism, student perceptions of the school environment, and other measures of college and career readiness.
2. Respond to the non-academic factors that influence school participation and performance.
Non-academic factors such as chronic absenteeism, trauma, poverty, and adversity can have a major impact on academic performance and cause young people to drop out. Community partners can support efforts to keep youth in high school by meeting their mental and physical health needs and building a sense of community- and school-based belonging.

For an in-depth look at how trauma affects academics, check out, “The Impact of Childhood Adversity, and Its ‘Antidote.’”
3. Improve school climate by promoting a sense of caring and connection between students and in-school staff through disciplinary practices and policies that are inclusive and ensure students stay in school through to graduation.
A positive school environment that is safe, supportive, and inclusive is essential for student success. That means replacing harsh, zero-tolerance discipline policies with restorative justice, practices, trauma-informed practices, and support services such as mental health counseling.
For more information on these approaches, take a look at, “Suspensions Don’t Improve Student Outcomes. Here’s What Does.”
4. Increase the number and quality of caring adult relationships in students’ lives.
Caring adult relationships promote positive academic, behavioral, and psychological development. Recruiting and training caring adults from diverse backgrounds leads to better outcomes for students of color, while partnering with AmeriCorps and other direct service providers leverages outside resources to bring more caring adults into schools.
Colorado saved millions when they added more guidance counselors to schools. Get their advice on how other states can do the same here.
5. Re-engage young people who have left school by providing accessible and effective options for completing high school prepared for success in college and/or career.
Students drop out or are pushed out of the traditional school system for a variety of reasons,
and schools and communities must work together to identify and recruit young people back to school if they leave and offer flexible options that help them stay.
For example, schools could offer evening programs for young people under pressure to earn for their families and make alternative education options available, including alternative schools and programs and credit recovery programs.
5 programs that build pathways
In some case, re-engaging youth might involve literally knocking on the doors of youth who have left school and asking them to come back, like the states featured in this story.
6. Connect the high school experience with pathways to postsecondary education, workforce readiness and participation, and overall adult success.
Communities should provide clear and connected pathways so graduates can go on to participate fully in the economy and in their communities. Pathways could include a two-year or four-year college, trade school, career, and/or national service.
Public-private partnerships that provide internship, mentorship, or project-based learning opportunities can make the high school years truly preparatory for life outside of the K-12 system.
This program in Los Angeles offers a powerful example of connecting the high school experience to careers.
It’s important to remember that none of these action areas are one-shot, silver bullet focus areas, but we’ve seen over time that a deliberate and concerted effort to support these action items—through policy and practice—have led to improved graduation rates in states and communities across the country. We urge states, communities, and schools to adopt or expand existing programs and policies. 
For more guidance and recommendations on these six areas, visit the GradNation Action Platform page. To receive updates and information on best practices in each of the platform areas, join the GradNation Community. Through 2020, we will host webinars, share best practice through our newsletter, and convene community teams—all to further the GradNation Action Platform and to fill as many football fields as possible with graduates.
Are you a state or community dedicated to supporting young people and raising graduation rates? You may be eligible for a GradNation Acceleration Grant, supported by AT&T. Submission deadline is November 8th, 2017. Learn more and apply now!