In GradNation's campaign to raise the national graduation rate to 90% by 2020, they surveyed noncompleters to gain further insight on the real reasons they left school. Based on these survey results, Penn Foster in partnership with America's Promise hosted a panel of academic professionals to discuss an action plan for fulfilling our promise to provide children with a pathway to graduation. Among the panel experts was Elayne Bennett, Founder & President, Best Friends Organization. Below she provides as with more insight by answering questions that arose from the Google+ hangout discussion.

1) Have you done any research on the "forgotten middle" the students who are not rising to the level of leaving HS and not the student who is in class every day and draws attention in different ways- but the student who attends every day and doesn't make progress?

Yes, there are the students who do show up in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade consistently and keep their heads down. They often do not cause trouble but fall behind in their schoolwork because there is little support at home and no one takes interest in them at school. Often a group like Best Friends or Best Men is their only bright spot of the day. Sports activities are the only thing that keeps some of them returning.

There should be after school homework and tutoring for the forgotten middle programs like HAP in Washington D.C. and Cities in Schools that offer a way to keep these students connected and also have a research component. Our research showed a major increase in grades and school attendance after one year in Best Friends or Best Man. Students who never considered college because they were C and D students and had no funds or scholarship opportunities ended up being admitted to college.  I just met with a group of them who graduated and have good jobs. They were not A students but became committed through peer support and teacher mentors. And they had the hope of scholarships and jobs.

If that does not happen, their grades will drop further in high school, risk behavior increases. And there is little incentive to graduate.

2) How do we get the system to move away from deficit thinking that focuses on the negatives experiences of students?

Our great success with Best Friends was due to the attention our students received at the National Recognition Program we hosted at the end of the school year. We had a luncheon at a huge hotel " all paid for " and recognized success!

Parents, teachers and administrators turned out by the droves. We awarded scholarships on stage, giving out Character Awards, Leadership Awards and Scholarship Awards.  Our choir and step drill teams performed. We honored the teacher mentors on stage with certificates. Teachers were delighted. All parents who attended received gift bags. Business and retail stores donated giveaways. We invited dignitaries and made certain they were impressed.

We worked the press. As you know, urban disadvantaged and rural disadvantaged students only get BAD press. We invited local news anchors and journalists. It worked! The local news station showed up because we pushed "good news" stories in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

All of these things built goodwill which is vital to the disadvantaged communities. 

3) How can we open communication within the schools " Teachers want to support students in the schools, but sometimes confidentiality gets in the way.

Parents give permission for their children to be invited to in school or after school programs. Within this permission, it is clear their child will have an opportunity to work with teacher mentors. A mentor contract is signed by child and teacher. All mentoring is done in classrooms and school grounds, always in a group setting with another teacher mentor. Mentors are protected and rise to the occasion.

Much of what I have described is what makes for success. Our research data proved that. But it does not mean the federal government will pay attention.

4) How do you go from a culture of failure, where people don't believe they can succeed, and believe the school doesn't think they can succeed, how can you turn it into a culture of success?

The way to create a culture of success is to be successful!  The way to be successful is to reward and celebrate success:

  • Start with the minimum. List student's names on large posters who had perfect attendance for the month.  Read students names on school announcements. Who received Good Character Award for the month? Do not wait until the end of the year to announce this!
  • Nominate teachers for the Milken Award. Lowell Milken gives out checks for 25,000 to teachers who show consistently high level achievement in their classrooms. Ask to be invited to the Milken awards in Washington DC.
  • Set up Star Awards for teachers in the school. There are many foundations looking for ways to help the poor performing schools.
  • Use holidays, science fairs, musicals, retirement ceremonies, essay contests, choir performances, etc as an excuse to bring in the "office" and the School Board.
  • Develop a good relationship with the superintendent. Regular letters updating him or her on the activities in the school are useful. Also invite the superintendent to events at the school.
  • Promote a principals seminar on "Smart and Good Schools." Principals are the key to success. If a principal realizes he or she is being supported and monitored, most will step up their performance. If this does not happen, work to remove the principal because all efforts in that school will be undermined. When a principal knows he/she will have onsite visitors with power...things start changing and energy flows.