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Community Engagement's Impact on Graduation Rates

Given the way people ball their fists and scream about the state of our education system, especially when compared with progress being made in other countries, did it shock you when President Obama proclaimed during his State of Union Address that U.S. high school graduation rates recently hit an all-time high?

You heard right: The national high school graduation rate is at 82 percent. And here’s something else maybe you didn’t know: 2014 marked its fourth straight year of improvement.

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The data also show that the achievement gap between white and minority students is closing. While white students graduated at a clip 17 percent higher than black students in 2011, the most recent report indicates that that chasm shrunk to 14.8 percent in 2014.

So, what’s the secret to all of this reported progress? Why are more American students choosing to stay in and finish school?

The reasons for these improvements are myriad. Better education almost certainly deserves some of the credit. But so do other, less heralded aspects of school improvement, such as parent and family services, for example.

To get a sense for the factors that helped drive the recent surge in national grad rates, we highlight efforts underway at two large, geographically disparate school systems—one in Des Moines, Iowa and one in New York City.

In both cases, district leaders attribute their recent gains, at least in part, to a simple, often undervalued concept: community engagement.

Defying the odds in Des Moines
Des Moines Public Schools enrolls a majority minority population. A large portion of these students hail from low-income, poor English-speaking homes (over 100 languages are spoken in the district).

To address the challenge of listening to students and their families, especially those who don’t speak English, the district launched a program called SUCCESS. That program pairs families with volunteer “case managers” who ensure families have access to the tools and resources they need to succeed. The district also partners with the United Way to host “graduation walks” in which volunteers engage with current drop-outs or those at risk of doing so, and encourage them to recommit or reenroll in school.

The result: A 7 percent increase in the district’s high school graduation rate between 2009 and 2014.

Breaking records in the Big Apple
Since coming on board in 2014, New York City Public Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has made a point of emphasizing the importance of parent involvement in education. During her short tenure as head of the nation’s largest school system, the number of school-based family workshops in the district has increased by more than 60 percent. The number of parents attending these workshops has also increased. The district is also retraining local school coordinators to more effectively bring parents into a conversation about their child’s education.

“We’ve had a very big focus on more family connections across our schools and we are seeing real results,” Fariña told the New York Daily News for a story.

The upshot: Recently, the New York City Schools reported a 70 percent high school graduation rate, the highest in its history.

To be fair, not every school district can subsidize large volunteer networks or hire armies of coordinators to engage and train parents. The good news: you don’t have to. Experience has taught us that the best community engagement begins simply—with listening, whether that’s online through your district website, through parent-teacher meetings, or town hall conversations.

As you look for new ways to engage parents and families toward a shared vision of student success, what steps are you taking to actively listen to and genuinely include their feedback in your decisions?

Looking for a simple, scalable way to get parents and community members more involved in educational improvements? Let’s Talk! is one place to start.