Starting Early to Prevent High School Dropouts

In today’s economy, a high school degree is a necessary step towards college and a career in the 21st century workforce. According to a new report, however, DC’s average high school graduation rate has not improved since 2003.

The 2013 edition of “Building a Grad Nation,” an annual report by the Everyone Graduates Center, Civic Enterprises, America’s Promise Alliance, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, gives state-by-state statistics on graduation rates and “dropout factories” – high schools where class size shrinks by 40 percent or more between freshman and senior year.                              

• The average annual change in DC’s Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) from 2003-2011 was zero.

• From 2003-2011, the number of dropout factory high schools in DC increased from 2 to 13.

• The number of students enrolled in these high schools increased by over 6,000.

The increase in the number of “dropout factories” and students enrolled in them could be attributed to the greater number of schools and students in general, combined with a lack of overall progress on graduation rates. While no student wants to enroll in a school with poor graduation rates, many DC residents might not have a better choice in their neighborhood.

For me, one takeaway from this report is the importance of having high-quality schools in every part of the city. Another is the importance of early care and education to put students on the path to high school graduation and career success.

The authors write: “We must strengthen the pipeline of education – from early education through career.” Here in DC, that pipeline starts with maternal/child health, high-quality early care and education, and access to preschool. As early care and education becomes the norm in DC, we’ll become accustomed to thinking about early care and education investments in terms of high school graduation rates.  

The plan to increase graduation rates to 90 percent by 2020 is described in the report as the “Civic Marshall Plan.” Many of the planks of the plan are issues where DC Action has been gathering data and advocating for change, including grade-level reading, chronic absenteeism, and middle school improvements. If we are truly building a “cradle to career” education system, as Mayor Vince Gray said at the launch of Raise DC, we can’t start too early.

Full disclosure: Robert Balfanz, an author of the “Grad Nation” report, is one of my graduate school professors.

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