Raising high school graduation rates: the lasting impact of City Connects

The good news is that high school graduation rates have risen steadily in the United States. In 2016, 84.1 percent of students graduated, up from 79 percent in 2011.

But that’s not high enough for the national nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance — which is why the alliance has launched GradNation, a campaign to raise the national graduation rate to 90 percent.

That will mean helping students who face some of the toughest obstacles, from severe anxiety and hunger to violence and serious health issues.

“The data shows us that to accelerate progress to a national high school graduation rate of 90 percent, we must meet the needs of young people whose lives feature the greatest complexity and we must employ diverse systems and supports,” GradNation’s website says.

Last year, Monika Kincheloe, Senior Director at America’s Promise, told Inside Philanthropy:

“We know, from years of research and knowledge building that increasing the number of high school graduates in key subgroups—African American and Latino students, students with disabilities, English Language Learners and students who live in low-income communities—is what will get the nation to our 90 percent goal.”

How can this be done?

One vital strategy is to protect students from the harmful effects of poverty — a goal that’s at the heart of the City Connects model.

Because City Connects is primarily used in elementary schools, it offers a long-term way to think about high school achievement. And here at City Connects, our focus on the whole child can help educators and policymakers understand what it takes to promote students’ success.

To share insights on this work, Mary Walsh and Patrice DiNatale participated in a GradNation webinar that was held in December — “Achieving a 90 percent Graduation Rate: Meeting the Needs of Adolescents Who Face Poverty and Adversity.” (Both the webinar and the accompanying slides are available.)

Walsh is City Connect’s Executive Director; and DiNatale is the Director of New Practice.

“We followed students who had had City Connects in grades 1 to 5,” Walsh explained in the webinar. “We followed them over the course of their school careers into grade 12 and we looked at the rate of dropout in high school among these students. We had not seen these students in the intervention since they were in grade 5. The dropout rate among these students was about half.”

The same was true for black and Latino boys who benefitted City Connects. Their dropout rates were also cut roughly in half. And by fifth grade, English Language Learners are also thriving: they have closed the math and reading gap between themselves and students who are native English speakers.

“If you look at the theory and you consider the research,” Walsh added, “there are some principles of how to do effective practice in the field of student support. And there are four effective practices from our perspective.”

Those practices are what we call the 4 Cs of City Connects, services that are:

• coordinated and not just “random acts of intervention”

• customized to individual students

• continuous at every grade level, and

• comprehensive, meeting academic, social/emotional, physical, and family needs

These services range from prevention and enrichment to early intervention to intensive and crisis interventions. And these efforts are all backed by evidence of their effectiveness.

“Although strengths and needs or risks try to stay in balance in all of us, poverty among other factors can cause risks to outweigh strengths,” Walsh said.

But if students receive the right services at the right time over time — the goal of City Connects — they can maintain the balance they need to graduate from high school and lead successful lives

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