Crossing the Finish Line: Helping Our Students through the Race

Researchers have found that high absence rates and falling off track in terms of credit accumulation are strong predictors of dropping out.
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Cathie Black has her hands full in her new position as Chancellor of New York City Schools. Education is a challenging subject for anyone involved and people across the city and state are offering a deluge of ideas on education reform and listing hundreds of daunting problems in our public school system. Perhaps the most pressing issue that continues to haunt NYC schools and districts across the United States is the formidable high school dropout rate.

While we are pleased the number of students graduating from NYC high schools increased slightly last year, very serious problems remain. For example, the gap between black and Latino graduating students and their white counterparts is alarming. There is a 20 percent gap between the number of black and white students who graduate and a 22 percent difference between white and Latino students. This disparity indicates that only far reaching, comprehensive solutions can address this problem.

A variety of academic and social barriers can affect a student's likelihood of graduation, notable family, school, neighborhood, economics and peers. While this seems an insurmountable list on which to focus, research has shown a student's first year of high school is the primary key to their academic success. Performance in ninth grade sets the stage for a student's eventual graduation and we must adjust our thinking to focus intently on this pivotal year.

Studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago suggest that freshman coursework success is affected more by what students do while in high school than by their socio-economic demographics or preparation for high school. This suggests we can target students in this critical year to increase the likelihood of their graduating on time. To further this point, researchers have found that inadequate credit accumulation during freshman year is a strong predictor of a student's failing to graduate four years later.

Freshman year of high school is an important milestone that serves as a key hurdle for many students. Much like other problems that can develop in one's life, those that manifest early put the student at considerable risk of continuing on a downward spiral throughout their lifetime. Consistent support from teachers, parents and the community as a whole is crucial in order to keep students on track. If a student falls behind during their first year of high school, they are at serious risk of dropping out of school.

Researchers have found that high absence rates and falling off track in terms of credit accumulation are strong predictors of dropping out. United Way of New York City has partnered with the NYC and New York State Departments of Education for 20 years on a program that focused on issues of attendance improvement and dropout prevention.

The program, Community Achievement Project in the Schools (CAPS), placed community-based social service partners in hundreds of elementary, middle and high schools to provide services like attendance outreach, counseling, and family involvement CAPS found that, while these services were critical to keeping at-risk children interested in school, supporting their academic progress was also crucial. United Way of NYC and the NYC Department of Education used these lessons to create a new initiative in 2010 titled Graduate, Prepare, Succeed (GPS-NYC).

GPS-NYC focuses primarily on ninth graders who have a history of chronic absenteeism. The students we serve missed between 20 and 75 days of school in eighth grade, and have entered high school without the skills they need to do high-school level work. They may have additional barriers poverty, homelessness, or lack of English proficiency. Such at-risk students need individualized support from engaged adults in order to keep them on track so they don't become discouraged and drop out.

GPS-NYC puts an emphasis on academic success by ensuring students earn a minimum of 10 credits in 9th grade. This benchmark has been found to play a key role in eventual graduation. In order to help students attain this goal, the program develops educational plans for each student, closely monitors the student's progress, and ensures that students participate in available academic support programs. Importantly, GPS-NYC also offers extended learning time opportunities where teachers and staff offer engaging opportunities for students to make up lost credits or earn additional credits toward graduation.

By utilizing 20 years of ground level experience in the CAPS program, United Way, the NYC Department of Education, and our community-based partners have the knowledge and expertise necessary to achieve sustainable change in New York City graduation rates. As researchers continue to narrow down on key points in student development, we will continue to develop programs that address issues at exactly the right time. By recognizing the importance of keeping students on track during their freshman year of high school, we can develop comprehensive solutions that work to keep students engaged, and in school, through graduation so that they can ultimately reach their full potential.

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