3 Steps New York and Other Cities Should Take to Help At-Risk Youth Reach Graduation

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new education agenda, announced last week, proposes to raise the city’s on-time graduation rate from 68 percent to 80 percent over the next ten years. A dramatic increase in high school graduation rates is a laudable goal and critical to championing equity; the devil will be in the details, which are yet to be made public. His plans to invest in pre-K and reading by 2nd grade are a critical foundation, but when it comes to keeping older students on track through high school, the mayor would do well to look to a new report released last week by the Center for Promise. Called Don’t Quit on Me, the report provides valuable insight into the role that relationships play in young people’s decisions to stay in high school. The findings point to three key considerations for any city seeking to build a plan to keep all youth on the path to graduation:

  1. Take a hard look at school discipline policies.

The study found that young people who left school were more likely to have experienced multiple adverse life experiences between ages 14 and 18, compared to youth who stayed enrolled. One of the experiences that was a top predictor of leaving school before graduation was suspension or expulsion; being suspended or expelled more than doubled the odds that a young person would not complete high school.

The link between being suspended or expelled and leaving school—consistently found in other research as well—is particularly troubling given the well-documented fact these disciplinary actions are disproportionately meted out to students from certain demographic groups. For example, in the 2009-10 school year, 17 percent of Black children in grades K-12 nationally were suspended at least once—more than three times the suspension rate of white students. The suspension rate for Black students with disabilities was even higher, at one in four (25 percent). In order to keep more students enrolled and increase equity in graduation rates, it will be critical to promote school discipline policies that create safe and productive classroom environments by employing effective alternatives to out-of-school suspension.

  1. Build a network of resources in and around schools.

One of the main findings of the study is that the more sources of support youth had (in terms of relationships with peers and adults), the more likely they were to graduate on time even in the face of adversity. Moreover, the type and source of the supports matter. For example, emotional support (caring and trust) and instrumental support (transportation, help navigating the justice system, etc.) were found to be particularly important in predicting whether a young person stayed continuously enrolled in school.

The New York City plan does propose piloting a program in two high-need districts where every student in grades 6-12 will be connected with a “single shepherd” to help him or her navigate the path to graduation. If these mentors can build trusting relationships with youth, they will be an important source of encouragement for struggling students. However, unless youth are also able to access instrumental supports such as financial and legal help, the emotional support is not likely to be enough to help many at-risk youth make it to graduation. A key challenge will be building connections and communication among schools and community partners so that students and mentors can easily access a variety of resources as needed.

  1. Incorporate intensive, specialized services for the most at-risk students.

Importantly, the report finds that for students who have experienced five or more adverse life experiences, supportive relationships with peers and adults were not sufficient to improve their graduation prospects. The authors hypothesize that for youth experiencing the greatest adversity, more intensive and targeted support—including mental health and social services—might be necessary to help them overcome the many hurdles to graduation. Furthermore, this finding applies to a large proportion of youth who leave school before graduating; in this study, 51 percent of interrupted-enrollment youth reported five or more adverse life experiences, compared with only 21 percent of continuously enrolled youth.

This suggests that keeping more students on track for graduation will mean building systems to identify youth with multiple risk factors early on (or to re-engage youth who have left school) and connect them with specialized services that schools cannot provide on their own. A “collective impact” approach is one promising strategy for harnessing and coordinating existing resources in the community, to offer the necessary range of services targeted to the most at-risk youth. However, making a collective impact initiative work will require significant political will and leadership to establish cross-agency communication, build data systems, and develop a funding strategy.

Overall, this report offers valuable information about the specific types of supports that different groups of students need, both within school and without, to overcome obstacles and complete their degrees. Key to the success of de Blasio’s graduation agenda–in addition to ensuring a strong academic foundation in the early grades–will be securing connections among school and community resources to provide the supportive relationships that will keep all youth on the path to graduation.