A Plan to Boost HS Graduation Rates

California, we should be embarrassed. Our disinvestment in public education is taking its toll on our state based on new data. We find ourselves in a deepening crisis that screams out for a strategic plan to support a change in course. Approximately 100,000 students fail to graduate high school in this state every year, and more than 50 percent of these people are students of color.

Since we’re still in economic distress since the Great Recession, we need to a call to action at the local level. The Santa Clara County Office of Education should consider taking a leadership role and become more of a strategic partner with its 31 districts. This will shape future planning relative to the high school dropouts in the county, taking the economic and social impact into consideration. SJ/SV2010 needs to become a foundational plan with increased district buy-in. Meanwhile, the region connects the dots relative to Early Head Start/Head Start/First Five, community schools, middle level education, career technical education, AVID, charter schools, etc.

In Monday’s report, “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic,” California is one of the bottom five states in the nation when high school graduation rates are quantified and compared from 2002-2009. California’s high school graduation rate declined in the span of the study’s eight years by 1.7 percent, while Tennessee and New York’s increased in the same time period by 17.8 and 13.0 percent, respectively.

“Building a Grad Nation” and its Civic Marshall Plan aims to ensure that 90 percent of the class of 2020—students in 4th grade today—graduates from high school. The report details key strategic benchmarks to track the progress to the ascribed goal at each component of the K-12 system.

Proficiency in Reading By 4th Grade
First and foremost, the report urges school systems to substantially increase the number of students reading with proficiency by 4th grade. The report states that children who do not read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. We know blended learning (using technology and software reading programs that track student progress), longer school days with teacher tutoring, and parent involvement help increase reading proficiency.

The SCCOE should produce an annual report by school and by district of the numbers of 3rd graders scoring proficient in reading.

The SCCOE should promote those schools and districts substantially increasing reading proficiency toward the 90 percent level by the end of 3rd grade and the strategies used to make the gains.

Reduce Chronic Absenteeism
According to the report, missing 10 percent of a school year is a key early warning indicator of a student being “off track” for graduation. New York analyzed the data and realized 1-in-5 students missed a month or more of school in 2009-2010. Under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, a Success Mentor Corps was implemented in 25 elementary, middle and high schools to address chronic absenteeism.

The SCCOE could develop a cadre of vetted and trained Success Mentors to be ready to go to schools and districts who wish to address chronic absenteeism.

The SCCOE could help the districts and schools with software that easily identifies students approaching 10 percent absenteeism. Based on my experience, too many of these chronically absent students fall through the cracks due to an under-resourced, underfunded and overwhelmed system. The SCCOE can be a powerful strategic partner in these efforts.

Redesign Middle Grades to Foster Engagement and Preparation for Rigorous High School Courses
Too often we overlook the importance of the middle grades when trying to increase high school graduation rates. There is no doubt that many county middle schools are in need of reform and redesign, an essential variable in the formula for increasing the high school graduation rates. U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan has called middle grades “the Bermuda Triangle” of K-12 education.

The SCCOE could develop a middle grades resource center focused on best practices throughout the nation in middle level education. It should then disseminate the information, offer trainings, coaching and professional development.

The SCCOE could advocate in the state legislature for a middle-level credential, whereby the recipient is an expert in the development of early adolescents.

The economic and social costs of high school dropouts is staggering. High school dropouts are significantly more likely to be unemployed and when they are employed they will earn $412,000 less in a lifetime than a high school graduate. According to one report by Stuit and Springer, “lower earnings of high school dropouts cost the state more than $54 billion per year in lost taxable personal income.”

SCCOE could bring together all stakeholders to develop a strategic plan with the goal of getting to a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 in the entire county. The SCCOE could release the data on the current numbers of high school dropouts by school and district, track the results annually, and become a reliable strategic partner to support the mission. Certainly, the SCCOE has an important role to play in helping students who have dropped out back to a meaningful school experience.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. I am one hundred percent behind your desire to set this goal.  My question is why should your board face some many distractions.  Recently Anna Song spent a long time attacking the integrity of Bobbie Plough on the RDA Committee for Santa Clara.  Why?

    The focus on the county board should be about raising graduation rates, not working to torpedo the effort of districts like Santa Clara to see to it that the last RDA project is the Northside Library, which has a partnership with Santa Clara Unified to boost levels for 4th grade reading.

    Song never met a superintendent she liked, and is not doing a damn thing to boost graduation rates, just playing petty politics.  How does money spent on providing an office for Ina Bendis, a school board member, cause graduation rates to rise?  A place to tutor kids which is what should be done with this “office” for a non functioning board member, because it will cause a rise in 4th grade reading.  Focus, focus, and focus on reading levels and graduation rates, should be the objective.  If Song, Bendis, and Kolterman cannot work to achieve this, RESIGN!!

  2. “Approximately 100,000 students fail to graduate high school in this state every year, and more than 50 percent of these people are students of color.”

    Apparently the lure of racializing everything is just too strong for you to resist.  However, the share of the diverse white American children in the statewide K-12 system declined from approximately 38% in 1999-2000 to approximately 28% in 2008-2009. I am sure that share has declined even more since then, but the link to showing these numbers is below.

    So why wouldn’t students representing 72% or more of the K-12 students provide at least 51% of dropouts?  You are an embarrassment.

  3. Sharon Noguchi did it again today (3/23/12) in the Mercury News by claiming that the diverse white American students are alone at the top of the high school student success curve compared with the diverse Latino & African American students.

    The dishonesty in her report was that she excluded all the diverse Asian American students from the picture. It’s the same old story that DiSalvo preached for so long by the same device, write out the diverse Asian American students in order to create a totally false picture of relative demographic successes and failures on the part of Bay Area schools.

    It’s shameful that the Mercury News publisher allows such false reporting on such an important subject. The real story is that the diverse Asian American students in general set the curve with the diverse white American students following 15 to 20 points behind.

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