Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

National Service Can Ignite School Turnaround Efforts

By Jim Balfanz — September 18, 2012 5 min read

For most students, school is a place to learn, grow, and succeed—a place where their potential to be a doctor, teacher, or musician is discovered and nurtured.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for the millions of American students who attend low-performing, high-poverty schools where graduation is often a 50-50 proposition. Students in these schools are unlikely to receive the personalized support they need to fulfill their potential. If not addressed, the United States’ too-low high school graduation rates—73 percent, according to Education Week‘s 2012 Diplomas Count report—will continue to contribute to our nation’s decreasing global competitiveness and increasing inequality of opportunity.

Access to a quality education shouldn’t be determined by zip codes, and yet a little more than 1 in 10 of all high schools produce half of the nation’s dropouts, according to the 2010 “Building A Grad Nation” report. In these schools, classrooms are often overcrowded, and more than half the students are struggling to overcome challenges associated with intergenerational poverty. The outdated one-size-fits-all school structure was not designed to meet the distinct needs of students living in poverty and fails to ensure that all students graduate prepared for college and a career. A few generations ago, that was accepted because students without high school diplomas could get jobs that supported their families. Today, that is not the case.

National service is an affordable and effective solution that can play a vital role in filling the implementation gap and igniting school turnaround efforts."

The good news is that we know how to change this. We know what works. We know the early-warning signs of dropping out: poor attendance, disruptive behavior, and course failure in math or English. We know that evidenced-based strategies, such as attendance coaching, social-emotional support, personalized or individualized instruction, and additional learning opportunities that align with classroom lessons and contribute to a well-rounded education, are advancing student achievement in schools with overwhelming poverty. We know which schools must be turned around to improve our high school graduation rates.

Yet these practices are not being implemented in many high-need schools across the country because there is a gap—an implementation gap—between the research-based supports that students confronting the distinct challenges of poverty require and the time and resources educators have to meet each student’s unique needs.

Closing this gap requires a willingness among all partners to think in unconventional ways. Luckily, there are effective resources available to schools, including national-service and community-based organizations that make it possible for teachers and school leaders to implement changes many educators once only dreamed were possible. For instance, to combat chronic absenteeism, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s office in New York City is asking community volunteers to serve as mentors for at-risk students. To ensure students have access to extended-learning opportunities, the nonprofit Citizen Schools organization coordinates adult volunteers known as “citizen teachers” to help make the connection between classroom lessons and future professional endeavors. To promote college readiness, College Summit trains older students to mentor younger students to create a college-going culture. And, to improve student achievement in small rural districts, working through the national community-service program AmeriCorps, vista workers—who focus their service efforts on low-income communities—can be deployed to help build schools’ capacity to provide additional opportunities for student learning and deliver support to individual students.

A new report, “Closing the Implementation Gap 2012,” details what we’ve learned at my organization, City Year, about how placing 10 to 20 full-time City Year members inside a school helps educators effectively implement new and comprehensive practices that transform learning. Again, working through AmeriCorps, City Year AmeriCorps members—who receive a small living stipend and modest funding for their educations—serve students in grades 3-9 in nearly 250 schools across the country. They work with students before school, after school, and throughout the school day, delivering targeted academic interventions aligned to the common-core standards, and social-emotional support. As near-peer (close in age) mentors, corps members are uniquely positioned to build strong relationships with students that can help them identify and report issues requiring more-intensive services.

Improving persistently low-performing schools requires a unique approach, such as the Diplomas Now turnaround model that brings together smart school design, the idealism of national-service members, and trained case managers to tap community resources. A nationally recognized secondary school turnaround model supported by the federal Investing in Innovation Fund, Diplomas Now leverages the expertise of the Talent Development secondary program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Communities In Schools nonprofit network of case managers, and City Year to transform persistently low-performing schools. Diplomas Now has produced strong results. More than halfway through the 2011-12 school year, there was a 63 percent reduction in the number of students failing English in the Diplomas Now program, a 44 percent reduction in the number of students off track in attendance, and a 61 percent decrease in the number of students struggling with behavior issues.

We know that all students can learn. We know how to effectively address the early-warning signs of dropping out. And we know exactly which schools must be transformed to dramatically increase our nation’s high school graduation rate. National service is an affordable and effective solution that can play a vital role in filling the implementation gap and igniting school turnaround efforts. To maintain America’s competitive edge in today’s global economy, we must act to ensure that all high-poverty schools have the extra dedicated people at the scale required to meet each student’s unique needs and help all students meet their full potential.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Using National Service to Ignite School Turnaround Efforts

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