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Policy Perspectives on Increasing U.S. High School Graduation Rates Offered at Black Congressional Conference

One strategy to reduce high school dropout rates among African-American and Latino teenagers is to better align counselors and high-quality teachers with the most vulnerable students as they move from elementary to their high school freshman year, a Johns Hopkins University senior researcher told attendees Thursday during the Education Braintrust session at the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Annual Legislative Conference.


Dr. Robert Balfanz, associate research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, said that analysis of the 2,000 high schools which account for roughly half of the nation’s dropouts showed that four out of five ninth-graders at those schools have either repeated grades making them older than traditional ninth-graders, or are doing academic work far below their grade levels. Those same 2,000 schools, accounting for roughly 12 percent of the nation’s secondary schools, are where African-American and Latino students are heavily concentrated, according to research by Balfanz and other scholars with whom he has collaborated. 


“Four-fifths of the ninth-grade students at the 2,000 high schools need extra help. They need more than just a good lesson every day. They need ways to overcome their skill gaps and become motivated with school,” said Balfanz. “You can see how schools get rapidly overwhelmed. Do we put the educational equivalent of the Army Rangers in those schools? No, we put the least experienced, the most transient, and the most unpolished teachers in those schools.” 


Community-based intervention efforts, which might use national service volunteers, could provide the mentoring and counseling to those vulnerable ninth-graders, Balfanz suggested. 


Balfanz was among several scholars sharing policy solutions at the braintrust session, entitled “Ensuring the Academic Success of Black Youth: Early Childhood and High School Graduation Initiatives.” During the Annual Legislative Conference, many of the 42 CBC members collaborate on holding braintrust sessions in a number of policy areas, such as education, health care and voting rights, to highlight new policy ideas and legislative remedies. The Education Braintrust was convened by Congressman Donald Payne, D-N.J., and Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Va., in collaboration with several other CBC members. 


James M. Shelton III, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Education Department, told the Education Braintrust attendees that high school graduation rates among Blacks and Hispanics must increase if President Obama’s stated goal of the U.S. having the highest rate of college completion in the world is to be achieved.


“The good news is that there are specific things we can do that we know about. What we do know is that we can turn around these low-performing high schools,” Shelton said. “There is a way to take the high schools that have had graduation rates around 30 percent and turn them into high performance schools with graduation rates at 70, 80 and 90 percent.”


Other notable sessions on Thursday included a National Town Hall Meeting entitled “Economic Recovery and Opportunity.”  In all, thousands of African-American professionals are attending the five-day conference in Washington, D.C., convened by the CBC, which has 42 members, and organized by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. This year, the 39th Annual Legislative Conference, has sponsored a significant block of forums, strategy sessions, and braintrusts on economic recovery and empowerment topics.

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