Increasing Graduation Rates in Our Nation’s Public High Schools

Our Stories from the Field series highlights how communities across the nation are addressing the Healthy People 2020 Leading Health Indicators (LHIs). LHIs are critical health issues that — if tackled appropriately — will dramatically reduce the leading causes of death and preventable illnesses.

This month’s story features a program that is tackling the Social Determinants LHI:

  • Students graduating from high school 4 years after starting 9th grade (AH-5.1)

Read the story below, then check out other Stories from the Field on

High school graduation is an important predictor for overall health outcomes. High school graduates have less chance of being in prison, greater financial stability as adults, and fewer health problems. In the United States, public high school graduation rates are rising. According to a 2017 National Center for Education Statistics report, the number of students who entered 9th grade and graduated with a regular diploma after 4 years increased from 79% in 2010–2011 to 83% in 2014–2015.

Robert Balfanz, PhD, Co-Founder of Diplomas Now

Founded in 2008, Diplomas Now is a partnership of 3 national nonprofits — Talent Development Secondary, City Year, and Communities in Schools — working to transform the Nation’s most challenged middle and high schools in high-poverty areas. Its model brings staff from all 3 partners into schools to restructure the way classes are organized and taught, identify students who need support, and provide the additional people and training needed.

In 2010, Diplomas Now won a $30 million federal grant, Investing in Innovation (i3), to implement and study its intervention model in 32 middle and high schools across the country. The full results of this 7-year study are still to come — but the numbers to date are positive.

Reducing the Number of Students with Early Warning Indicators
“Early warning indicators”are the foundation of the Diplomas Now approach. These are signs that a student is falling off track for graduation, and they include:

  • Attendance: less than 85% attendance
  • Behavior: an unsatisfactory behavior mark or suspension
  • Course performance: an F grade in English or math

“These are all the drivers of success,” says Robert Balfanz, PhD, Co-Founder of Diplomas Now and a professor at John Hopkins University School of Education. “We’ve found that if you can get the right support to the kid at the right time — when they’re trending down on 1 of these indicators — you can get them back on track.”

“And that’s significant,” he adds, “because kids who get from 6th to 9th grade with no indicators are 3 times more likely to graduate than kids who have even 1 indicator.”

Research shows that helping students improve their attendance, behavior, and grades in middle school significantly improves their chance of graduating high school on time.

Partnering to Support Student and Teacher Success
Diplomas Now partners with schools that have a high concentration of low income, high needs students — 30% were chronically absent and 60% were not proficient in math and English when the study began 7 years ago. “Schools aren’t designed or staffed to reach that many high-needs kids,” says Balfanz. “That means we have to build up the capacity of the adults to work in a challenging environment, and buildup academic and social support for the kids.”

Each of the partner organizations plays a key role in the Diplomas Now approach. Talent Development Secondary brings in educators to improve English and math instruction, which includes restructuring classes so teacher teams share a common group of students. This allows teachers to hold a weekly “early warning indicator meeting” where they talk about the students with indicators and pool their insights to develop interventions that can help get the students back on track academically.

City Year provides targeted academic and school-wide interventions to help students get on track and stay on track to graduate. They send 10 to 15 recent college graduates—who give a year of service for a stipend—to each school as near-peer mentors and tutors. The mentors support students as needed by calling them in the morning if they don’t come to school, attending classes and working on lessons with them, and providing homework help and behavior coaching.

Communities in Schools contributes trained social workers and case managers to support students whose home life impacts their ability to succeed in school. These professionals connect kids in need to community support like housing, food, and counseling.

Success by the Numbers
In 2013–2014, the Diplomas Now study schools achieved a:

  • 44% reduction in absenteeism
  • 59% reduction in suspensions
  • 57% reduction in students failing English
  • 58% reduction in students failing math

In addition, since partnering with Diplomas Now, many of the high schools have increased their graduation rates, including:

  • Gage Park High School in Chicago: from 39.4% in 2011–2012 to 62.6% in 2015–2016
  • Newtown High School in New York City: from 62% in 2010–2011 to 70.5% in 2015–2016
  • Manual Arts Senior High School in Los Angeles: from 69.4% in 2011–2012 to 78.6% in 2014–2015
  • Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, DC: from 41% in 2013–2014 to 59.2% in 2015–2016

Getting Kids Back on Track to Graduate
Balfanz tells the story of a student who started skipping first period math every day. His teacher was ready to fail him. But in the weekly early warning indicator meeting, she learned from his science teacher that he had been taking his father to chemotherapy. He didn’t want to tell his teachers because he was afraid the school would stop him from going.

“Without that opportunity to talk, the math teacher would have just failed the kid,” says Balfanz. “Diplomas Now creates a way for teachers share their knowledge of the kids with each other and come up with a plan to support and encourage them.”

The Diplomas Now study has demonstrated that it’s possible to reduce the number of students at risk of dropping out by increasing the number of students with no early warning indicators. “It’s a common belief that 6th to 9th grade is too late, that these kids’ fates are already set,” Balfanz says. “But we’ve found that kids send up signals early and often, and if you listen and respond, you can bend the river and get them back on track.”