Diplomas Now: A Model of Collaboration and Innovation

By Anne O'Brien

First posted July 2013.

We know a great deal about the high school dropout problem. From the research of Robert Balfanz and others, we know where dropouts are likely to come from – the majority attends a small subset of high schools where the graduation rate is 60% or lower. We know who is likely to drop out – the warning signs start as early as first grade, and by middle school they can be defined as the ABCs (attendance problems, behavior problems, and course failure). And we know that there are effective interventions that help retain likely dropouts.

Where we have struggled is in putting together what we know and addressing the issue at scale. But that might be changing. At a May briefing at the US Department of Education on the progress of three Investing in Innovation (i3) grantees, I learned of a promising effort to do so: Diplomas Now. The innovation? Arranging what we know are effective education improvement strategies into a coherent whole.

Based on Balfanz’s research (and he is the program founder), Diplomas Now brings together three national networks – Talent Development, City Year and Communities in Schools – to deliver a comprehensive secondary school turnaround model in high schools where relatively few students graduate.  

Utilizing the evidence-based approaches taken by each of the partner organizations, Diplomas Now targets interventions at multiple levels – school, classroom and students. The model: Organize teachers into

teams of four, with each team focusing on 75-90 students, to allow them to talk about both instruction and individual students. Then provide the comprehensive set of supports they need to work effectively in challenging environments. This includes instructional supports – double doses of English and math, extra help labs and common college preparatory or high school readiness curricula. It also includes organizational supports – interdisciplinary and subject-focused common planning time, an on-site school transformation facilitator, and weekly discussions about students. There are also professional development supports (including job-embedded coaching in math and English and professional learning communities) and data supports (including an onsite facilitator to discuss it).

Of course, as Balfanz pointed out at the briefing, we know that children overcome amazing challenges to come to school – and if we don't address those out of school challenges, our in-school reforms will never be enough. So importantly, Diplomas Now includes student supports in schools where a large percentage of the population needs them. Each participating school receives 8 to 20 City Year Americorps members, recent college graduates who provide both whole-school and targeted academic and socio-emotional supports, such as monitoring attendance, providing after school/extended learning opportunities, and acting as “near-peer” mentors in both one-on-one and small group contexts. Each school also receives a Communities in Schools on-site coordinator who provides case management (including referrals to community partners for resources such as food, housing, legal and other assistance as necessary) and small group and individual counseling for the highest need students.

Holding the program together is an early warning indicator system that allows school staff to see, week by week, which students are falling off track (indicated by their attendance, behavior, and English and math grades) and then immediately target supports at them.

According to Balfanz, the program is reaching 36,000 students. And early results are promising. In the 2011-12 school year, it got 45% of students flagged for attendance back on track, as well as 68% of those flagged for poor behavior, 61% of those flagged for failing English and 52% of those flagged for failing math.

Only time will tell if the program will have the desired impact – and results will continue to be monitored, as the Diplomas Now i3 project is currently implementing the largest national randomized control trial of secondary school reform in the country. But I am hopeful that this common sense approach, addressing both the academic and nonacademic needs of struggling schools and students, will show enormous benefits. And in the end, there will be a research-validated strategy for turning around secondary schools that will allow us to move past the notion that firing teachers and closing schools can cause large scale improvements. Instead, it will focus us all on what is truly important: Helping each student overcome his or her personal challenges to reach his or her potential.

Two teenage girls posing for photo