Adults get on-track to help students graduate

Last month a group of over 50 educators from every high school in Minneapolis Public Schools convened to learn about a new initiative. As I walked up to the room where the training was held I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder how many people rolled their eyes when they were invited to this training.” “Just another district initiative.” I imagine they complained.

But I was wrong.

When I arrived to the meeting it was already in full swing and the trainer had a very captive audience fully participating and digesting both the data being provided and its implications.

The training was on a new process titled 9th Grade On-Track.

9th Grade On-Track is exactly what it sounds; a focus and a process to ensure all freshmen in their first official year of high school are on-track to graduate in four years. If that brings to mind a number of different assessments and standardized test, forget it. It simply makes sure each student passes enough courses in the required and elective fields to meet graduation requirements without credit recovery.

A district employee gathers this data and provides reports to teams of teachers, counselors, social workers, and other support staff at the schools. Armed with this information, the teams review each student’s data to ensure they have covered everyone who needs some form of attention and to connect them to the right resource. The most crucial component of the initiative is that this information is provided in real time, at least quarterly and often more frequently, so we catch students before they fail.

At this point, I assume many of you are now rolling your eyes. Obviously, to graduate from high school a student has to pass their courses. Surely, teachers and students already know this and act on it.

Yes, but when schools have a student-to-counselor ratio as high as 450:1, not every student gets the needed attention. When Generation Next interviewed a high school counselor in Minneapolis regarding which students needed credit recovery, the counselor pulled out a binder full of transcripts and suggested he could go one by one to provide that information.

It was obvious then that an investment needed to be made to digitize this data and provide it promptly to staff in the schools. Thanks to a generous grant from U.S. Bank Corporation, we were able to do just that.

So what does the data from this initiative tell us?

At the end of the 2015-2016 school year:

  • 56% of all Minneapolis 9th graders are on-track to graduate in four years, meaning 44% will need some form of credit recovery
  • Wide gaps exist between ethnic groups: Asians and Whites have the highest rates at 86% and 90% compared to African Americans at 52%, Hispanic at 55% and American Indian at 39%
  • On-track rates vary by high school from a high of 88% to a low of 46% among the seven major high schools
  • Core courses were also failed at varying rates:
    • Social studies 12.6%
    • Math 13.3%
    • English 14.5%
    • Science 16.5%

The good news is that students who are on-track at the end of 9th grade have a high likelihood of graduating in four years (90% chance). This suggest that if we are able to prevent students from failing any courses or to get them on-track shortly after they fail their first course, we may be able to increase our graduation rates substantially.

During the meeting, the attendees digested these grim outcomes but concentrated on the various steps they can take as individuals and schools to create change. At the same time, they constantly challenged the district to improve systems and supports.

The focus on On-Track has made us at Generation Next realize that the closest thing to a “silver bullet” is not an initiative or an action, it is a process. Often mundane, hardly ever sexy, these types of processes hold the biggest promise in improving outcomes for students. These types of solutions have some things in common:

  • they rely on some form of data,
  • they are student-specific,
  • they involve multiple people, departments and/or systems, and
  • they rely on individuals going the extra mile and constantly focus on how to improve their own practice.

The On-Track initiative does not use any new data; it does not add any new interventions. Instead, it reorganizes data in a new way, puts it in the hand of educators, and supports them in reaching the students they are in the best position to help.

Think of it as a team of doctors treating an unknown disease. You might have a surgeon, a pediatrician, nurses, and other specializations and support teams. They look at various data points and research for hints of what the issue may be, but the focus is on the needs of each individual patient.

The same is true for the On-Track initiative. The data the district provides enables school teams to coalesce around specific students to identify issues before it is too late. Although data is the first step, the work is ultimately on individuals at each high school. There is no intervention that will work for every student; instead we are arming individuals with the tools to identify specific students and their unique needs.

Victor Cedeño, Director of Policy and Networks

SIF 2015