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Editorial: How to improve graduation rates

Updated: May 25, 2014 3:32PM

Is it possible to significantly improve high school graduation rates in Chicago, even at some of the city’s toughest schools, without a drastic overhaul, a shiny new program or the opening of a charter school?

Turns out it’s not only doable, it’s already happening.

A highly targeted intervention focused on helping ninth-graders show up for school and pass their courses has led to major increases in graduation rates, a new University of Chicago study to be released Thursday shows.

Among 20 schools that dramatically improved ninth-grade pass rates, the researchers three years later documented huge leaps in graduation rates — between 8 and 20 percentage points. Every type of student benefited, but the gains were largest for the lowest achieving students and for African-American boys.

Systemwide, ninth-grade pass rates, or “on-track” to graduate rates, have skyrocketed, from 57 percent in 2007 to 82 percent 2013, suggesting that the surge in graduation rates won’t be limited to the 20 studied schools. Previous U. of C. research has shown that passing ninth grade is more predictive of high school graduation than race, ethnicity, poverty or test scores.

This is a highly encouraging finding, particularly for traditional urban high schools, many of which were written off as unfixable long ago. That includes some of the 20 schools studied by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The question now, of course, is how to keep it up. Like many districts, the Chicago Public Schools tends to lurch from one silver bullet solution to another. CPS cannot lose its focus here, to let the hunt for the latest answer undercut one of the most promising innovations seen in a generation.

CPS made ninth grade on-track rates a top priority for all schools beginning in 2007. It started by supplying each school with real-time data on grades and attendance for every freshman. From there, schools independently developed strategies to support their freshmen and many have embraced this focus because they’ve seen it work firsthand.

The current CPS administration has made freshman success a priority and we hope they double down. This should include requiring charter schools to submit their ninth-grade pass rates for public review as well as making sure high schools that are facing budget cuts do not trim positions and programs proven to successfully support freshmen.

The most exciting part of this research is this simple affirmation: How a school organizes itself matters. If a school helps students make the often rocky transition from tightly scripted elementary school life to independence in high school — a time when most students, even the highest achieving, see their grades and attendance drop off — it can make an enormous difference in a child’s life trajectory.

“Schools don’t have to change everything going on in a child’s life,” said Elaine Allensworth, the U. of C. Consortium director. “What they have to do is make sure all those other factors don’t intervene with kids coming to class and getting their work done.”

That’s what Kenwood Academy did several years ago, and it has seen both its on-track and graduation rates soar. It started a summer program for in-coming freshmen, weekly meetings of all ninth-grade teachers to identify kids falling off track, and a daily after-school tutoring and skill-building club for struggling students. It also devoted a staffer to monitoring freshmen attendance, Principal Gregory Jones told us.

There are a few caveats here. There’s little doubt that individual schools and teachers, facing pressure to boost on-track rates, pass some ninth-graders who don’t deserve it. But the researchers looked at this carefully and found no large-scale gaming. And just because more students make it to graduation doesn’t mean enough are graduating or that grads are ready for college or work. CPS’ average test scores remain very low.

But getting more students through 9th grade — and on the path to graduation — is a huge accomplishment.

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