It seems like a no-brainer that the goal of attending high school is to graduate with a diploma and the knowledge and skills to be successful in higher education or the workforce. But for many years, a high percentage of Alabama students dropped out instead of pursuing that goal.
New statistics, however, show that the Alabama State Department of Education’s focus on increasing the graduation rate is working — and much faster than expected.
State Superintendent Tommy Bice’s PLAN 2020 for education reform calls for increasing the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, with the percentage of students earning diplomas rising every year. Bice announced recently that the graduation rate for the class of 2014 reached a record high of 86 percent, a level not expected until 2018.
That was an increase from the previous all-time high of 80 percent in 2013. The statewide graduation rate has risen steadily from 72 percent in 2011 and 75 percent in 2012.
Bice said the new record high is further validation that teachers and students are working harder than ever. “We are absolutely delighted to see the graduation rate making these kinds of unprecedented gains,” he said. “It is the result of teachers focusing on identifying the specific needs of students, removing barriers to learning and helping students meet their goals.
“Also, students are taking responsibility for their own academic success and putting in the hard work that is required to graduate from high school. In an era of more rigorous academic standards, greater accountability and higher expectations of our teachers and students, Alabama educators and the students they serve continue to demonstrate what steadfast resolve and hard work garners.”
Kay Atchison Warfield, ALSDE’s dropout prevention and graduation success administrator, said PLAN 2020 is working, but not because it mandates specific actions that local school districts must take. Instead, Bice “pretty much says that if there is an obstacle…then he would like to see a process to dissolve the obstacle,” she said.
Some districts have even revised their codes of student conduct to remove barriers. “So many times a code of conduct has punitive consequences” that result in students dropping out, Warfield said. “When the kids have those issues resolved and they attend school daily, then their academic performance increases.”
School districts are also identifying students who are at risk of dropping out earlier than before. Warfield said Alabama has one of two tools in the nation that identifies at-risk students early. ALSDE provides it free to all districts. “It allows us more prevention and not as much after the problem has occurred,” she said.
She likened the efforts to preventive health care. School officials now are able to look at students as early as kindergarten to attack problems that could result in dropping out later. “We have found that attendance is a major symptom of a child not completing high school in four years,” she said.
Forty districts around the state are participating in a pilot program funded by a Johns Hopkins research grant. Warfield said those districts have graduation coaches that make sure the conversation with students about the importance of graduation is taking place.
She says one thing that districts need is social workers, who can spot social issues that traditional educators cannot identify that can lead to a student dropping out.
Funding is also needed for programs that give students nontraditional pathways to graduation. “Birmingham City does a fabulous job with their [dropout] recovery program,” Warfield said. Some 720 students have graduated from that program.
The Baldwin County schools have a program that allows students to attend classes on a flexible schedule, Warfield said. The Dothan and Florence schools also have good programs, and the Midfield, Fairfield and Bessemer systems all have made changes which help students graduate.
“I think the local districts are making a really concerted effort,” she said. Every high school student now has a plan that states what their goals are and how they will achieve those goals.
She said efforts and programs vary from district to district because the issues students face may be different from one system to another. “We’re all different. Dr. Bice gave us a template to follow, but he didn’t say they all had to be the same,” she said.
Warfield believes that several factors have contributed to the increase in the graduation rate. Career-technical programs that teach students skills that allow them to be ready for the workforce after graduation or help them decide on a college major have had a great impact, she said.
She said the state raising the age at which a student can drop out to 17 has helped a lot, because 16 is too young for youths to really consider the effect that dropping out will have on the rest of their lives. “They can’t vote; they can’t drink; they can’t get married without permission. So why would we allow a kid at 16 to make a decision about their lives?” she said.
At 17, students tend to feel close to graduation and know that the support they need to help them earn a diploma is there, she said.
Warfield believes the state will reach the 90 percent goal ahead of schedule. “If we can stay the course, our prediction is that we will meet that goal,” she said.
“We have a team where every member of the team has a job. When the 86 percent graduation rate was announced…the trophy went to the team — everybody working together in the same mission.”
Bice said increasing the graduation rate to 90 percent by the year 2020 is a goal that will not only keep youth on the path to becoming college- and career-ready, but will also be an economic boon for the state as well.
A recent report commissioned by the Business Education Alliance showed that reaching a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 would have an economic impact on the state $430 million greater that year than if the graduation rate remained at its current level.
The Business Education Alliance report, authored by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) with economic modeling performed by Auburn University at Montgomery Economics Professor Keivan Deravi, was commissioned by the BEA to quantify the potential benefits of the state’s PLAN 2020.
The study likened the impact to landing an industrial mega-project. PARCA Executive Director Jim Williams described PLAN 2020 as a strategic opportunity akin to the one Alabama seized when it landed Mercedes.
“It’s a far more ambitious improvement plan than anything I have seen in my 26 years at PARCA,” Williams said.
The study said that a 90 percent graduation rate would result in an additional 5,643 students graduating each year. Of those graduates, 3,564 would enter the workforce and result in a net of 1,167 more people employed. The study also said that each class with a 90 percent graduation rate would collectively earn $68 million more than a class with an 80 percent graduation rate.
In fact, each year Alabama sustains the 90 percent graduation rate, each class of graduates would be 5,643 larger, with 3,564 of them going into the workforce, resulting in a net addition of 1,167 more people employed. Each class graduating at 90 percent would collectively earn $68 million more than a class graduating at the most recent graduation rate of 80 percent.
Despite the current trajectory of Alabama’s graduation rate, Bice said this is not a time for the state to rest on its laurels. As Alabama grows the number of students graduating, it is equally important to make sure that every single graduate not only finishes high school, but does so with a quality education that will allow him or her to transition seamlessly into college without the need for remediation or into the workforce with a credentialed skill set.
On top of the direct impact from the new graduates, the increased employment and earnings would produce a multiplier effect, further stimulating the state’s economy. Deravi said the potential impact would be a “permanent upward structural shock to the state’s economic resources.
“As such, it will, continuously and exponentially, add to economic prosperity of the state’s economy,” Deravi said.
If PLAN 2020 succeeds in its aim of producing graduates who are better prepared for college and careers, the impact will be even greater. Those more highly-qualified graduates would be more likely to finish college, further raising the educational credentials of Alabama’s 21st century workforce.