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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

The Middle/High Years / Back on Track to Graduate

Diplomas Now combines whole-school reform, an early-warning system, and a second shift of adults to keep all students on the path to graduation.

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Students who struggle and fall off track during early and middle adolescence, particularly at the start of middle school (6th grade) and high school (9th grade), typically do not graduate, especially in high-poverty communities (Allensworth & Easton, 2007; Balfanz, Herzog, & MacIver, 2007). In the United States, students in high-poverty communities are concentrated in a subset of 1,750 high schools with low graduation rates and their feeder middle-grade schools, which about half of the nation's dropouts attend (Balfanz, Bridgeland, Moore, & Fox, 2010).
These schools face an education challenge they were not designed to meet. They often enroll hundreds and sometimes even thousands of students who need more than good instruction every day. To remain engaged in school, these students require intensive academic and social-emotional supports. Their sheer numbers often overwhelm such traditional efforts as providing extra help, behavior management, attendance monitoring, and counseling. As a result, schools often resort to triage and dysfunctional responses that lead to high rates of educator turnover and burnout. This makes matters worse because educating the highest-needs students then falls to a transient and under-supported set of adults (Neild & Balfanz, 2006).
But some high-poverty middle and high schools across the United States have met this challenge head-on. During the 2009–10 school year, several schools piloted the Diplomas Now model. As a result, they've reduced attendance and behavior issues that put students at risk of dropping out by 50 percent, and they've reduced course failures by close to 66 percent. In one Chicago high school, 92 percent of students made it on track to the 10th grade with their grade-level cohort, compared with a district average of 64 percent. The Diplomas Now model has proven so successful that it was recently awarded an Investing in Innovation Validation Grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will help scale it up to 60 additional middle and high schools across 10 school districts over the next five years.

Tackling the Crisis

According to comprehensive studies in urban high-poverty school districts, three key indicators predict student success: attendance, behavior, and course failure. Students in high-poverty environments whose performance is off track in even one of these indicators from the 6th to 9th grades typically have a 25 percent chance at best of graduating from high school. Approximately 80 percent of eventual dropouts send distress signals in one or more of these areas during these years. Reducing the number of students exhibiting such indicators would substantially improve graduation rates.
With this goal in mind, Diplomas Now unites three organizations— the Talent Development secondary program at Johns Hopkins University; City Year, a nonprofit AmeriCorps organization; and Communities in Schools, a community-based dropout prevention organization—to create a new middle and high school model that reduces dropout risk.
The Diplomas Now model integrates four key elements.

Element 1: Effective Whole-School Reform

Diplomas Now integrates strategies related to instruction, teacher and administrator support, professional development, and organizational improvement that are designed to raise student achievement, promotion, and graduation rates in the nation's most challenged high-poverty secondary schools. Whole-school reforms are the core elements of the Talent Development Middle and High School model, which is built on 15 years of evidence (Kemple, Herlihy, & Smith, 2005). Strategies include creating a more personalized learning environment for students and teachers by enabling teams of teachers to work with a common set of 75–90 students for one or more years, implementing challenging research-based instructional programs in core subjects, providing extensive professional development supports for teachers and administrators, offering coordinated extra-help courses for students, and fostering strong school-family partnerships.
Because caring relationships among teachers, students, and families can improve student effort and teacher effectiveness, Talent Development assists each school in implementing such approaches as small learning communities, interdisciplinary teaming, and looping. The communal organization of schooling, in which teams of teachers work with a common set and manageable number of students, can be adapted according to school size, teacher interests and abilities, and local regulations.
For example, some schools have created two-teacher teams, particularly in the 6th grade. Each teacher teaches two subjects—for example, math and science or social studies and English—which enables teachers to share a smaller group of students. Other middle-grade schools have created three-teacher teams. In this approach, teachers teach double periods of math and English, rotating science and social studies in extended blocks by semester. In the 9th grade, the most common configuration is a four-teacher team. Math, English, science, and history teachers teach three 80- to 90-minute blocks; they share the same set of students and a common planning period. As for looping, the most common arrangement is between 6th and 7th grade, enabling more specialized teaching—algebra instruction, for example—in the 8th grade.

Element 2: An Early-Warning System

In the Diplomas Now model, a teacher-friendly early-warning system alerts teachers as soon as students begin to demonstrate behaviors that, if left unattended, will push students off the path to graduation. This system is linked to a tiered response system that combines proven prevention and intervention strategies and increases the intensity of supports until it solves the problem at hand, whether it's related to attendance, behavior, effort, or course performance.
Diplomas Now is currently demonstrating this approach in its partnership with the Philadelphia Education Fund and the School District of Philadelphia, where an early-warning data-on-demand system is available to teachers through the school district's SchoolNet information system. At the classroom level, the system shows teachers their students' attendance and behavior records, course grades for both the previous year and the previous quarter, and the most recently available information on their students' reading and math levels.
Most important, it highlights students who are beginning to fall off track—for example, those who have received their second unexcused absence in a month, their second referral for poor classroom behavior, or a D or an F in the most recent marking period. Although a district-level computerized system is ideal, it's not necessary; all the crucial on-track and off-track information is located in teachers' grade books and in students' attendance and behavior records.
However, to have a positive effect, the early-warning system must be linked to a comprehensive prevention and intervention system across the attendance, behavior, and course performance domains. To illustrate with a familiar parallel, the public health prevention and intervention model is now making its way into schools. This model is being implemented in the behavioral realm through Positive Behavior Intervention Support programs and in the academic realm through Response to Intervention. The Diplomas Now strategy generalizes this model across the attendance, behavior, and course performance domains.
For example, schoolwide attendance campaigns reward good and improving attendance through shout-outs and recognition at assemblies and special events. Teachers stress the importance of attendance at the homeroom level to foster positive peer support, and the school reaches out to parents and community members with the same supportive message. One school, for example, created a two-page flyer titledHow to Keep Your Students on Track to Graduation that it sends home to parents. The flyer provides information on key benchmarks and steps parents can take to help. The school follows up with phone calls home whenever a student is absent and to report on good progress.
For students who don't respond to these strategies, targeted interventions with small groups of learners can be more effective. These include daily homework and assignment completion support; extra help courses; behavior contracts; anger and grief management classes; and daily success monitoring in which a designated adult at the school checks to see whether the student is in school, understands his or her classes, and gets along with students and teachers. Some students may need more intensive one-on-one interventions, such as working with a social worker or receiving intense academic tutoring.
Teachers use clear, data-based decision-making rules to determine when a student needs to move from one level of support to another. These rules typically are keyed to key benchmarks. For example, when a student's attendance drops below the 90 percent threshold, the school assigns the student a mid-intensity, small-group targeted intervention. If the student's attendance drops below 80 percent, the student receives a higher-intensity, case-managed intervention. When the student's attendance improves and appears stable, the school reduces the intensity of the supports but continues to monitor the student.

Element 3: Strategic Deployment of "Near Peers"

In the Diplomas Now program, City Year places teams of 8–15 highly trained national service corps members (young adults up to 24 years old) in each school four days a week, from before the school opens in the morning through the end of the after-school program. In preparation for their assignment, corps members receive one month of training in relevant subject areas, such as tutoring techniques and behavior management.
Each "near peer" works with 15 or so students with off-track indicators. They build strong relationships with students as they follow them through the school day, providing attendance monitoring, tutoring and mentoring, and homework support. They also provide the person-power to support whole-school attendance and positive behavior support campaigns by managing weekly incentive and recognition efforts. In addition, they staff after-school tutoring and enrichment activities and organize service learning projects. The City Year teams are led by an experienced program manager who is well trained in the Diplomas Now model.
The Communities in Schools model uses community-based integrated student supports—interventions that improve student achievement by connecting community resources with students' academic and social service needs. Using the early-warning tracking system and a needs assessment, the Communities in Schools site coordinator organizes and monitors sustained individual interventions that last several weeks, months, or possibly, years. These include small-group anger and grief management sessions, one-on-one supports from mental health providers, and family supports for homelessness. The coordinator also brings in community supports that address schoolwide needs. These may include health screenings; college and career fairs; and parent supports, such as classes for the General Educational Development (GED) diploma.

Element 4: Team-Based Work

Diplomas Now changes the mission of middle and high school teachers and administrators. For this model to succeed, it must be accompanied by organizational structures and expanded collaborative work time to make each individual's job more manageable.
First, the school must put significant effort into mission building so that its teachers and administrators have a shared purpose. Second, the school needs to be structured so that core teachers share common sets of students and work exclusively with these students for at least a year, and often two or more years. Finally, schools need to organize their schedules so that teachers have significant collaborative work time at both the interdisciplinary team level (the core teachers who share students) and the subject level (for example, all math teachers).

The Right Supports

A school transformation facilitator from Talent Development helps ensure that the teacher teams have the training, support, and assistance they need to implement the whole-school reforms and effectively operate the early-warning and tiered intervention system. Collectively, the Communities in Schools site coordinator, the City Year program manager, and the Talent Development facilitator collaborate with the school's leadership to ensure deep integration of the new design into the day-to-day workings of the school. By doing so, they substantially improve students' chances of staying on the path to high school graduation.

Allensworth, E. M., & Easton, J. Q. (2007).What matters for staying on-track and graduating in Chicago Public High Schools: A close look at course grades, failures, and attendance in the freshman year. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Balfanz, R., Bridgeland, J. M., Moore, L. A., & Fox, J. (2010). Building a grad nation: Progress and challenge in ending the high school dropout epidemic. n.p.: America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center.

Balfanz, R., Herzog, L., & MacIver, D. J. (2007). Preventing student disengagement and keeping students on the graduation path in urban middle-grades schools: Early identification and effective interventions. Educational Psychologist, 42(4), 223–235.

Kemple, J., Herlihy, C., & Smith, T. (2005).Making progress toward graduation: Evidence from the Talent Development High School Model. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.

Neild, R. C., & Balfanz, R. (2006). Unfulfilled promise: The dimensions and characteristics of Philadelphia's dropout crisis, 2000–2005. Philadelphia, PA: The Philadelphia Youth Network.

End Notes

1 The Diplomas Now model was piloted in the Feltonville School of Arts and Science, a high-poverty middle school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the 2008–09 school year. In 2009–10, Diplomas Now was scaled up to three high schools in New Orleans, Louisiana; a new high school in Chicago, Illinois; two middle schools in Los Angeles, California; a middle school in San Antonio, Texas; and two additional middle schools in Philadelphia.

2 The Diplomas Now model was piloted in the Feltonville School of Arts and Science, a high-poverty middle school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the 2008–09 school year. In 2009–10, Diplomas Now was scaled up to three high schools in New Orleans, Louisiana; a new high school in Chicago, Illinois; two middle schools in Los Angeles, California; a middle school in San Antonio, Texas; and two additional middle schools in Philadelphia.

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