The New York State Education Department has released updated high school graduation rate data. According to the press release, “New York’s overall graduation rate continues to rise slowly over time…Statewide, 73.4% of the students who started 9th grade in 2006 had graduated after 4 years, by June 2010.”
Indeed, increasing graduation rates and reducing dropout rates has proved an intractable challenge for many schools districts. Progress is generally slow or stagnant. But not for all districts.
The Lockport City School District is a case study of how data-based decisions, focused strategy and a lot of really hard work by dedicated professionals can have a dramatic effect on graduation and dropout rates.
Lockport’s impressive gains
In 2005, Lockport’s four-year graduation rate was 70%. Five years later, that rate had increased to 81%. Nearly 50 more students walked across the stage and received a diploma in June of 2010 than would have had the graduation rate remained flat at 70%.
In 2005, Lockport’s five-year dropout rate was 19%. Five years later, that rate had declined to 9%. Some 43 fewer students dropped out by June of 2010 than would have had the dropout rate remained flat at 19%.
This rate of improvement is extraordinarily significant in human terms. Citing a Northwestern University study, The New York Times reports that on “any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates…The picture is even bleaker for African-Americans, with nearly one in four young black male dropouts incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized on an average day.” At Lockport 43 fewer young men and women now face the potentially deleterious consequences of dropping out.
Lockport’s focused three-part strategy
Each year while updating its district-wide plan for continuous improvement, Lockport reviews five-year trends on all key performance indicators. While reviewing cohort exit results in the summer of 2008, the planning team identified a disturbing pattern. As many as one in four district enrollees was either dropping out or transferring to GED.
Superintendent Terry Carbone immediately made clear that such performance was unacceptable. Almost as quickly, she decided to shut down the flow of Lockport students to GED and redirect those resources to expanded options for credit recovery. According to Superintendent Carbone: “The decision was easy. Once we saw the data, I knew we needed to shut down the GED program. Business as usual was not working for kids. We needed a new alternative and credit recovery was the best available option.”
The high school leadership team led by principal Frank Movalli embraced these decisions and aggressively redirected resources — and students — from GED to credit recovery. At the same time the high school improvement team decided they needed a more sophisticated means of tracking the status of each high school cohort in order to know who was and who was not on track to graduate. High school assistant principal Dawn Wylke and the district’s chief information officer Rob Lipuma dedicated themselves to producing a very useful cohort tracker tool that allows guidance and administrative staff to track the graduation status of each cohort based on a set of critical factors: performance on Regents exams, total credits, absences, tardies and discipline referrals.
According to Mr. Movalli, “Our guidance and administrative staff are working diligently to track the status of each cohort. In some cases, cohort tracker identified students who had dropped out but were very close to graduating. We went out into the community, contacted these students and invited them to return. A number of our dropouts did return, use our credit recovery options, complete their requirements and successfully graduate.”
Lockport identified three key strategies necessary to increase graduation rates and decrease dropout rates:
- Shut down the flow to GED
- Redirect those GED resources to credit recovery
- Accurately track the status of each cohort and intervene as early as possible when needed
They then demonstrated the discipline to maintain focus, the energy to work extremely hard and the skill to implement well. The results are compelling.