ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Boosting Graduation Rates: A Success Story

Post submitted by Whole Child Blogger Hunter Holcombe

How does the poorest school district in Iowa increase its high school graduation rate every year since 2005—from 68 to 78 percent?

As Martha Bruckner and Ann Mausbach explained in their example-rich ASCD Annual Conference presentation "Badges, Buttons, and Beliefs: Ten Dynamic Ideas to Increase Graduation Rates," the answer is complex.

"Unfortunately, there is no magic answer," Bruckner said. Yet in the hour-and-a-half session, Bruckner and Mausbach presented an impressive compilation of methods that, when used collectively, can result in major graduation rate improvements.

At their district—Council Bluffs Community School District—success was the result of several distinct initiatives. One of the most important was their ambitious long-term strategic plan: 100 percent graduation.

"We have a strong belief here that 'All Means All'," Bruckner said. She admitted that many in their community might scoff at such a seemingly impossible number, but it was that commitment to thinking of every single student as a "must-graduate" that helped them look at the problem, one student at a time.

Another major requirement, particularly in a poor community such as theirs, is that the district must partner with the community. From parents to after-school programs to regular community members, everyone must be on board, communicating and working together, to keep the students from falling through the cracks. At the core of their strategy are 10 ideas:

  1. Strategic Plan
  2. Class of Buttons
  3. Attendance Checks
  4. Promise Activities
  5. SAMs (School Administrative Managers)
  6. Lateral Capacity Building
  7. Summer Exploration
  8. State of the Schools/Data Consults
  9. Data Walls
  10. Grading/Learning Recovery

The second idea, Class of Buttons, is one of the most unique. All students are given "Class of ..." buttons to wear and take home, which ties students mentally to their graduation year. In addition, teachers stop referring to their class as "4th grade," for example, and instead call it the "Class of 2023." The district has witnessed young students arriving at high school graduation ceremonies proudly wearing their own "Class of ..." buttons.

Another novel approach, Attendance Checks, creates incentives for the children to come to school. Students are placed into groups, which are given awards if they collectively reach high attendance levels. This creates inner-group peer pressure on the kids to show up so that their friends in the group don’t suffer the consequences of their own absence.

The SAM is a new role designed to take administrative stress and daily distractions away from the school principals, freeing them up to better manage the teachers and spend more time in the classroom. The SAM is a middle-management position, so it does not take up a large chunk of the budget, and the net effect on the principal's efficiency is considerable. "It has changed everything," Mausbach said.

Comments (1)

Beth Decker

March 21, 2013

It seems that one major component, also not a magic answer, is helping teens early enough see what they want their futures to look like and the steps it takes to get there. We do nothing as a whole to help them see their skills, talents, interests specifically connected to learning and the whole point of education, future employment. I created a class to fill this gap and it works VERY well in motiving students to do their best, improve their skills and see much greater relevance in all parts of school. This also provides a genuine way for parents to be engaged in the process which is another element missing from the list above. http://www.getreallearning.com

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