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Commentary: We Can Harness "People Power" For Our Schools

Image: Jazmine Raygoza adjusts her cap before her high school graduation in Denver

On April 28, America got some good news.

The latest annual update of high school graduation data, released at America Promise Alliances’ “Building a Grad Nation” Summit in Washington DC, showed the U.S. graduation rate improved from 72 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2012.

That is the highest it has been in American history and clearly demonstrates that our goal of reaching a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 is achievable. But the report also contained some sobering news that illustrates the challenges ahead.

Not all children are finishing high school with their peers. For low-income students, graduation rates are hovering around 60-to-75 percent compared to 90 percent or more for middle- and high-income kids. Students with learning and other disabilities make up 13 percent of the overall student population and are posting a graduation rate only in the 60 percent range. The four-year graduation rate for African-American students is still less than 67 percent in 15 states and for Hispanic students in nine states. By contrast, there are no states in which the graduation rate for white students is below 70 percent.

There was mixed news on another front in our most recent report: America has reduced the number of “dropout factory” high schools from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,359 in 2012. These are schools at which 60 percent or fewer 9th graders actually graduate on time. As a result, 1.2 million students have been removed from the dropout environment. Despite this progress, there are still more than 1 million students attending “dropout factory” high schools where graduation is not the norm.

We’ve reached our best-ever graduation rate by understanding who is most likely to drop out, why they leave school and which schools they attend. We’ve also learned from research and real-world examples that teach us how to keep more students on track. One such strategy – called out in the Grad Nation report – is leveraging national service by young adults who want to serve in schools to make America better. My organization is one of several that works with AmeriCorps to place teams of qualified young adults in schools where high numbers of students are at risk of dropping out.

This year, 2,700 City Year AmeriCorps members are serving in nearly 250 schools across the nation to directly support students and teachers. Collectively, they are having an impact on our country’s overall graduation rate: Nearly half of all 6th-to-9th grade students in schools where we serve improved their average daily attendance last year. 78 percent of our teachers agreed the corps members improved student behavior. 82 percent of our 3rd-to-5th graders improved their reading and literacy scores.

But we – and our country as a whole - could do so much more. States and cities don’t have to wait for the federal government to harness and deploy this resource. Five years ago, the President signed the “Serve America Act,” authored by Senators Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch. The law authorized 250,000 service positions by 2017, but Congress has since backtracked. More recently the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the U.S. Department of Education created the School Turnaround AmeriCorps to bring more national service members to the highest need schools. With 650 Americorps members serving in 70 schools under this new program, it’s a small but promising start to meet the scale of need.

We need to scale what works to the places that need it most. At the federal level, we need to fully fund the bipartisan Serve America Act. At a local level, states and cities that have the largest graduation gaps should work creatively to establish and resource their own version of School Turnaround AmeriCorps.

Entire communities are impacted when we cannot provide pathways to success for all our students. After all, states and cities ultimately bear many of the costs of the dropout crisis with lower tax revenue and higher incarceration costs. What if these local jurisdictions partnered with the federal government to further harness the power of national service to bring together the academic and social/emotional supports to help students graduate from high school prepared for college and career success?

In order to make transformative gains, we need a collective impact approach where we bring partners together who can each fulfill a unique need and where the net gain is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

We now have the data on which schools are holding back progress against our 2020 goal of 90% graduation. With both political and professional leadership, local public and philanthropic dollars can be raised to support a cost-effective approach to improving the highest need schools.

The latest Grad Nation report provides the encouraging news that progress can be made and all kids can learn. It also shows that national service is part of the solution. During this time of scarce federal dollars, we need cost-effective collaborations to scale what works where it is needed most.