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Graduation Rates Hit New High: Good News For Everyone?


Now as the school year winds down across the country, we'd like to turn to some good news in education. High school graduation rates are at a 40-year high. Across the country, 75 percent of students are earning a high school diploma. That's up from 66 percent just 10 years ago, according to a new report by Education Week. And some of the biggest gains come from Latino and African-American students who are finishing high school at the highest rates ever. We wanted to talk more about this so we've called Chris Swanson - he's the vice president of Editorial Projects in Education - that's a nonprofit group that published this new report together with Education Week. He's here in Washington, D.C. Chris, thanks so much for joining us.

CHRIS SWANSON: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: For additional perspective we've also called Mikala Rahn, who founded Learning Works - that's a charter school dedicated to helping some of those kids who weren't making it across the finish line, who were in fact dropping out in the Los Angeles area. She's with us from member station KPCC, in Pasadena. Mikala, welcome to you, thank you so much for joining us.

MIKALA RAHN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Chris, I'm going to start with you. What's going on here? Why do we see high school graduation rates growing?

SWANSON: We've been looking at this issue in Diplomas Count Report for about eight years now. And, as you've already mentioned, we've seen a really strong rise over this period of time. And this starts at a period - maybe about 10 years ago when the issue of graduation dropout was not even on the national agenda, which is kind of a strange thing to think about at this point in time. A lot of what's behind these increases we're seeing and the consistency across groups is really the consistent focus over the past decade on this as an important issue, educationally as well as how it feeds into the economy.

MARTIN: Are there specific supports that have been put into place? Or do you think it's just more of kind of a talking it up, like a bully pulpit type of situation?

SWANSON: You know, it's a little bit of both. And I think one of the things that we've come to realize, through research and reform that's been going on on the ground, is one of the big challenges that school systems face is understanding what their challenge is. Students who have dropped out, who are at risk of dropping out, are very different from one another and are very different from one community to another. Before, say the past, you know, 10 years, school systems had, surprisingly, little hard data and information about their students, especially ones who had already left. And so a first step being - understanding what the needs of your students are, do you have an over age at-risk population, are these students who are just, you know, struggling academically in general. Once schools and school systems can get their heads around that, then they can think about matchmaking the needs of their students to the solutions that are going to work best for them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about new news about the high school graduation rate in the United States. It is at a 40-year high. We're talking about this with Chris Swanson, he's the vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, he published this new information. Also with us, Mikala Rahn, who founded Learning Works, that's a charter school dedicated to helping kids finish school who have previously dropped out. The rates for Latinos increased by 5.4 percent from 2009 to 2010. And they increased 3.3 percent for African-Americans for the same period. Still around 1 million students nationwide are not graduating on time this graduation season. So Mikala, what have you observed about why kids are dropping out and what kinds of things tend to help them make it across the finish line?

RAHN: One of the concepts in prevention is - yes, awareness helps and higher expectations in schools help. And that helps the graduation rate - meaning students who might be floundering at the school, getting the D's and the F's or hanging out on the benches or the attendance - those are the ones we can quickly grab, if the adults are paying attention, and get them to the stage. And that increases the graduation rate.

I think an interesting concept in the report that we're talking about is the epicenters where there are high dropout rates that still exist, and I work in one of those epicenters, and in those cases, dropouts need a different strategy. In our program, it's completely structured different and the students aren't required to be there all the time, they come for what they need. And so, I think it's important to look at graduation rate and dropout rate separately, and they require different interventions. One's more of a prevention strategy and one's more of an intervention strategy.

MARTIN: To your point, what the report talks about, as you said, epicenters where the graduation rate is either dropping or staying the same - L.A. is one, Chicago is one, Denver, Dallas, Albuquerque, New Mexico is one - Chris, why don't you pick up the thread here. Why do we think this is? I mean, these are urban systems. There's a lot of turnover in a lot of these systems, maybe there's a lot of churning in the student population. Maybe there's a lot of, kind of, people coming and going - a lot of times there are a lot of immigrant groups there too - maybe English isn't the first language. I mean, what are some of the factors that you're seeing here?

SWANSON: Those are all factors that you see a lot. And when we look at this epicenter list, these are school systems that are large and have low graduation rates, and that's what gets you on the list. And so, New York, Los Angeles, you know, the big urban districts tend to be the ones that pop up. Even if there's larger districts elsewhere in the country and it is, I think, what we see in especially kind of big city districts that have histories of low performance, it's a combination of factors - it all comes down in the same place. Our public schools are reflections of the communities they serve. These are often communities that have high rates of poverty, histories of segregation, histories of low performing schools.

They may be well resourced or not but, you know, the dollars aren't everything. Students who are in these communities and often they don't have the good kind of family or neighborhood support set that affluent suburbs would have - these epicenters - there's lots of challenges. There's progress being made - New York is, you know, at the top of the list. It's also by far the largest district in the country. They've been making steady improvements, and so even if you're on the list it doesn't mean that good things can't be happening, but the bar is very high in terms of the level of challenge.

MARTIN: But Mikala, I still want to push you on this sort of question on the kinds of things that you think work here. And you make a point of intervening before kids drop out and also recovering the kids who have already dropped out, and you're saying that you need different strategies here. So let's talk first about the kids before they dropout. What are the kinds of things that you see work?

RAHN: The area that everybody needs to be focusing on is middle school and ninth grade. When you look at a ninth grade transcript - you really know the story, you know if they're UC bound in California, they're going off to Harvard - or if they're in the average pack or if they're struggling to graduate or if they're going to be a dropout. I mean, I see transcripts that have straight F's all the way through ninth grade and they have zero credits. So the prevention student is the one that's hanging on and the intervention student isn't even hanging on.

The schools really need to look at that data early on to make determinations of what's going on with these students and most of it is correlated to poverty. And so how can we put the supports in place to make sure these students are attending and getting the engaging teachers, 'cause it also comes down to relationship relationship. If there is no relationship or reason for that student to be at school, they won't be there.

MARTIN: And the recoverable youth is - it's kind of a terrible term, isn't it, I mean it sounds like recycling - but I understand the intention of it is that maybe the kid's already dropped out but you can get him or her back in. So Mikala, talk a little bit about what are the strategies that you find working there - one of the things you were telling us earlier is just the traditional school day is a nonstarter for this population, why is that?

RAHN: Imagine a student has been out of school for six to eight months. They've been on their couch, they had no one getting them off the couch. There was no parental push - sometimes the parents don't even know that they are a dropout. The schools aren't calling you, they're not coming to find you. If you decide to get off that couch and go back to school, you are not going to go back to school three to six hours a day in a continuation school, you've lost all your habits. And so we've created a school that's very alternative, in that students come like a college to do credits and activities that they need in order to graduate. And the more that they feel the relationship and see the success that they have, the more hours they put in and towards graduation they're there 40 hours plus a week.

MARTIN: Overall though, we've presented this is as good news - is it? I mean, there are still a million kids dropping out every year, in an economy that increasingly requires a lot more education than high school. So Chris, you know, final thought, how should we feel about this? Is this a good news story?

SWANSON: It's good news but I think we should not sit back and rest on our laurels. There are still a million kids a year who are not earning diplomas, that's not enough. And as we've seen the graduation rate increase - the demands for highly educated people in the economy just increase and increase and increase and it's not just that people want more, there's very little for people without at least a high school education to be doing.

Even kind of fields that we've thought about as potentially offering a stable middle-class life in generations gone by - skilled trades, blue-collar work, those jobs either don't exist any ore for the most part or are much more technical and require higher levels of education and training. I think it's good to acknowledge progress where it's been made. But the job's not done and I think anybody who looks at our report or looks at any number of communities around the country can see that even one student falling through the cracks is too many.

MARTIN: Mikala, final thought from you? Is this a good news story?

RAHN: I was surprised by it, because I'm in an epicenter and I'm excited by it because it means that the expectations, I think, have increased. And the issue is - we have more awareness over the issue of dropouts because it is an economy issue, it is something we need to focus on. But in those epicenters, I think everybody needs to do what they can to, as we call it, chase kids back and reengage them in their education.

MARTIN: Mikala Rahn is principal and founder of Learning Works - that's a charter school in the Pasadena area that works to get kids who have dropped out of school back into school. She's also - recently elected to the Pasadena Unified School District Board. She was with us from KPCC, in California. Here in Washington, D.C., Chris Swanson - he's vice president of Editorial Projects in Education. Thank you both so much for joining us.

SWANSON: It's a pleasure.

RAHN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Coming up, it's hard being a modern dad, especially when your kid does something like this...

STEVEN HICKOCKS: (Caller) He had gone onto Facebook and used an alias, made his age to be 18, and he was chatting with friends of his at school in the middle of the night.

MARTIN: Does father still know best? Our panel has been there and serves up some advice just in time for Father's Day. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News, I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.