Top 5 Ways Educators Can Raise the Graduation Rate

The conclusion of our "Don't Call Them Dropouts" four-part series responds to the question, "what can high schools and educators do to help increase the graduation rate and equip more young people with a high school diploma?" To start, our academic communities do have a reason to celebrate-a record 80 percent of high school students received their diploma in 2012. Although an 80 percent high school graduation rate is an exciting scholastic landmark, educational leaders aren't rejoicing wholeheartedly just yet. GradNation, a movement to end America's dropout crisis launched by America's Promise Alliance, aims to raise the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

Jonathan Zaff, the executive director of Center for Promise, leads a discussion over how academia can improve graduation rates and help failing high schoolers stay in school. The following insights from Zaff, along with his "Don't Call Them Dropouts" virtual panel of experts, convey how educators and institutions in both secondary and post-secondary educational environments can coalesce to equip more young people with a high school diploma and better serve our nation's disenfranchised youth.

Collaboration Is a Must

Communication and a sense of connection among educators can build a functioning school, but without collaboration, the school will fail to become a successful and thriving learning environment. Collaboration creates the climate that's most supportive of students, and school professionals need to work in unison to prevent students from leaving high school before graduating.

"One of the challenges we have in our schools is that our schools are really designed around cooperation, and not collaboration," exclaims Ray McNulty, chairman of the Penn Foster high school board. A guidance counselor may receive different information about a student than an instructor, for example, and without collaboration among staff, this information that could improve the student's situation gets lost.

The future is about collaboration, says McNulty. High schools, and even career colleges, need to have and exchange more details without restriction. If every concerned adult who has interacted with an at-risk student at a high school can pull together and meet around the same table, these adults can help this student resolve his or her issues. Separating knowledge from caring and helpful adults is perilous.

Career college professionals can play an active hand in re-engaging high school noncompleters by collaborating in a partnership to graduate students with a high school completion program. In a collaborative partnership, a career college can provide students with an opportunity to earn a high school diploma and transition into college. It's all about doing what we believe is right for our kids and schools. Make influential educators or mentors knowledgeable with good information. Partner with a program to create opportunity. Make an impact on a child, and they'll pay it forward.

Create a Culture of Success

Along with open and effective collaboration among professionals, a school's culture can set students up for success or failure. An environment in which students don't believe they can succeed-and who don't believe the school believes in their success-develops into a "culture of failure." How do you replace a culture of failure with a culture of success?

Elayne Bennett, founder and president of the Best Friends Foundation, emphasizes that teachers, staff and the principal are all responsible to help students succeed. Availability is crucial, both before or after school and before or after class. School professionals who position themselves as mentors and make time to engage in conversation with struggling students can change a failing school culture into a succeeding one. Simple questions like, "What's going on with you?" "How are you feeling?" or "How is your day?" can provoke a conversation that breaks student barriers and shifts attitudes.

Bennett agrees that collaboration is invaluable. Pull together to meet the special needs and address concerns of certain students. Just by paying attention to a chronically absent or withdrawn, sad student can make a monumental difference in the student's life, both academically and personally. Most students can do the work, as long as they can actually make it to the classroom, feel valued and see the need in going to school. The further behind a student gets, the more hopeless the student becomes, thus perpetuating this culture of failure.

Be happy to see students. Let them know they're missed when they're gone. Extend extra effort to keep students engaged and connected to the school to prevent them from falling behind. Give more attention to teacher training that zeroes in on the social and emotional needs of students. Use the principal or outside speakers as role models. Invest in young people emotionally and academically, and provide floundering students with a support network. A culture of caring cultivates a culture of success.

In a post-secondary school, a comfortable, supportive and emotionally invested environment puts re-engaging students enrolled in a high school completion program on a trajectory for successful outcomes. The availability of helpful instructors and peers who share similar experiences create a positive environment that creates this culture of success.

See Parents as Allies

"College" can be just as frightening a word as "dropout," says McNulty, especially for low-income families or first-generation college students whose parents never experienced college life themselves. Intimidating, unfamiliar territory breeds fear in parents, who may then become averse toward college. McNulty himself was a first-generation college student who credits a teacher with encouraging him to pursue a college education.

Bennett adds that often, low-income families don't feel welcomed by the school. Not only do they pass this attitude onto their children, but their own parental involvement dwindles. Enlist parents as high school and even career college school allies rather than adversaries to create a nurturing environment inside and outside of the classroom, as well as on and off the campus. If teachers and administration can build positive relationships with parents, they can form a dynamic school-parent team that champions student success.

Rather than alienate or criticize parents, work together to provide support and share similar goals for the student, such as earning a high school diploma and moving onto higher education. As a team, educators and parents are on the same page that's written in the best interest of the high school student.

Serve as Mentors & Role Models

Zaff identifies three core findings that correlate with high school student failure rates: coming from a toxic home environment, varying levels of ability to bounce back from life's challenges and a search for connection in the world. As students negotiate the barriers of their daily lives, they seek connection in school, at home or within the community. Young people look for love and want to feel like they matter. Young people, especially teens who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, need someone (a mentor) to help guide them through adversity.

A mentor can help keep learning dynamic and engaging for 21st-century students. Educators need to identify at-risk learners and build relationships with them, asserts Dr. Beth P. Reynolds, executive director of the Dropout Prevention Center and Network. Mentor and coach these individuals. "Give them the character skills along with the academic support that helps them come back and give back," says Dr. Reynolds. Pay attention to student needs and form these mentorship initiatives. Help high school noncompleters re-engage and fill the gap that traditional settings don't.

McNulty describes the heart of our communities and colleges as spaces surrounded by great walls that exclude nontraditional learners. Mentorships, along with partnerships and high school completion programs sponsored by career colleges, can serve as a bridge to these spaces. Then mentors can provide ongoing support as these learners explore diverse higher-education avenues in their community.

A mentor can have an incredible impact on a child. Bennett agrees that a mentor can help affirm the self-worth of these vulnerable students. Knowing students have a personally invested advocate who believes they're valued members of a positive group can carry them over a multitude of hurdles, especially if parents are absent. Creating special bonds is part of the role of adults. Keep in mind nontraditional learners not only bond with their mentor, but also bond to positive social norms intrinsically linked to academic achievement and the culture of success.

Offer Options & Flexibility

"Our system was really designed to treat everybody the same," says McNulty. He explains everybody is expected to show up 185 school days a year, grades first through twelfth, to graduate. Not all students learn and progress on the same level though. Some students may only need 60 days in math and then 200 days in language arts. "The system doesn't seem to have the flexibility enough to deal with the issue," he contends.

Student sabbaticals, a radical idea, encourage students to take a break if they need to and return when they're ready. Leaving the door open is important, echoes Bennett. Create a graduation-enabling foundation by accepting and accommodating the diverse realities and traumatic lives of students. Bennett mentions how only about 40 percent of teen moms finish high school, and 30 percent of all noncompleting female students cite pregnancy at the cause. If the school system doesn't provide options for nontraditional learners with unique needs, these individuals are left without any choice but to leave school. Leaving is too easy. Reduce barriers for re-entry and leave the doors open, and young people will benefit.

A school can offer a different learning model that addresses diverse student needs by partnering with a jobs-skills training or high school completion program. Provide online learning opportunities that enable students to learn at their own pace and according to their own schedule. Youth and job agencies, fresh start or dropout recovery programs, school districts partnerships and blended learning can also help make the high school diploma relevant in the complex lives of these nontraditional learners.

For example, career colleges can adopt a high school completion program to re-engage noncompleters who have left the school system. A program designed as a blended model serves as the aforementioned "open door" that invites noncompleters back into the academic space, providing a flexible and independent learning experience.

"The more options we have for learning to occur, the better off we're going to be," McNulty believes. "There is no normal anymore... What used to work for a lot of our families and children, it's not working anymore." Educators need to create and grow different models that promote learning. Research and understand what will work for which kids under certain circumstances as dynamics change. Identify what students respond to. Implement programs that accelerate students, allowing them to effectively catch up and flourish.

"We're moving the needle every year," says McNulty, "and I think we need to recognize that as being incredible beneficial."

Check out Part One herePart Two here, and Part Three here.