Earlier this week, America got some good news and California got a wake-up call.
The good news: The high school graduation rate improved from 72 percent in 2001 to 80 percent in 2012, the highest in U.S. history. That progress indicates the goal of reaching a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 is achievable.
There was more good news in a finding that America has reduced its number of “dropout factory” high schools from 2,005 in 2002 to 1,345 in 2012.
But then came the wake-up call.
The United States “cannot reach its 90 percent goal without California, the nation’s most populous state,” declared America’s Promise Alliance, which on Monday released its fifth annual update regarding the school dropout crisis. “California will need to graduate a total of 440,000 more students – 300,000 of them from low-income families – by 2020 if the state is to obtain a 90 percent graduation rate,” the group said.
Achieving that goal won’t be easy. California has the highest poverty rate in the country and a sprawling educational system with more than 1,000 school districts. It is first in the nation in the number of Latino, low-income and Asian/Pacific Islander students, and students with disabilities. The state has made much less progress than the nation as a whole in reducing the number of “dropout factory” high schools – from 129 in 2002 to 116 in 2012.
As a nation, we’ve reached our best graduation rate by understanding who is most likely to drop out, why they leave school and which schools they attend. We’ve also learned from research and real-world examples how to keep more students on track. One such strategy, called out in the Grad Nation report, is leveraging national service by young adults who want to serve in schools to make America better.
My organization, City Year, is one of several working with AmeriCorps to place teams of qualified young adults in schools where high numbers of students are at risk of dropping out.
In Sacramento, we have 50 young adult volunteers working in five public schools. Collectively, they’re having an impact: 80 percent of teachers agree AmeriCorps members improve students’ focus and order in the classroom, and 63 percent of those students in grades six to nine who were earning a D or worse in English improved to a C or better last year.
City Year corps members provide the “people power” these schools need to improve. They act as tutors, mentors and role models, supporting students in project-based learning and getting them ready for the new Common Core academic standards. All told, their help adds the equivalent of 90 days to the calendar year for students who need it most.
But the need is huge and goes well beyond these five schools. Every year, more than 1,700 students in Sacramento drop out of high school. Students who drop out are eight times more likely to become incarcerated and three times more likely to be unemployed.
It’s not surprising, then, that the California Dropout Research Project estimates that if half of Sacramento’s dropouts completed high school, there would be $298 million in savings in excess health care costs and lost tax revenue and productivity.
Under the federal Serve America Act enacted five years ago, Congress set an ambitious goal to grow AmeriCorps, but the funding has not followed. Fortunately, states and cities have the data on which schools are holding back progress against our 2020 goal. As we’ve learned at City Year, local public and philanthropic dollars can be raised to support a cost-effective approach to improving the highest-need schools. In other words, we can support AmeriCorps national service volunteers at the local level to make a difference.
Our entire city is affected when we cannot provide pathways to success for all our students. The latest Grad Nation report provides the encouraging news that progress can be made. It also shows that national service is part of the solution.
Jake Mossawir is executive director of City Year Sacramento.