No Excuses: We Need 100 Percent High School Graduation

Founder of a STEM school says there's a way to increase graduation rates.

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Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is the founder of the LEAP University Academy Charter School, which has a STEM curriculum, in Camden, N.J. She is also a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Next month, high schools across America will hold their graduation ceremonies--except for an alarmingly high number of students who will not earn their diplomas.

With entering college and earning a degree the educational focus of so many Americans, few are noticing that the step to higher education--earning a high school degree--is crumbling at a disturbing rate.

The numbers are sobering. Today, 25 percent of all students in the U.S. fail to graduate from high school. Even more alarming, 3 out of 5 minority students never bother to finish the 12th grade.

Those figures need to change. The sooner, the better.

Consider this: There are now a higher number of black, Hispanic, and other minority babies being born in the United States than white babies, according to government data released this month. If we continue on our current statistical arc--60 percent of minority students dropping out of high school--we will be left with an increasingly less educated workforce competing in the global economy.

It doesn't need to be this way.

Through its Grad Nation initiative, the America's Promise Alliance has set a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate nationwide by 2015.

A good place to start, perhaps, but it still begs the question: Are we setting our goals too low? Why give students the message that graduation isn't an imperative when the ultimate of 100 percent can be achieved? Scores of success stories from throughout our country prove that change can be realized--even in poor, urban pockets. All it takes is four simple ingredients: support, structure, access, and guidance.

At LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, N.J., one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in America, each of the school's eight graduating classes has achieved a 100 percent graduation rate.

For so many of this year's graduates, anything short of graduation from high school would have been absolute failure.

We can only achieve a 100 percent graduation rate through a "no excuses" culture in which the goal of graduation and college enrollment begins in pre-school and continues unabated through high school. We deliver the message that college is the only option. Then we reinforce it.

"No excuses" means building a student's self-esteem from the ground up. The system has beaten down way too many otherwise good people. Too many kids in Camden enter high school believing that there is no way that they will ever get into (or afford) college. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We turn around that attitude. "No, I can't" becomes "Yes, I can!" Students who struggle can't be left hanging. We identify the students who need intervention and provide it early and consistently. Academic enrichment is provided for all students through an extended day and year. We also provide tutoring, Saturday instruction, and summer academies and other programs to assist students in their quest for college.

Students must be provided every opportunity to excel and achieve. For example, our school sponsors training for AP classes, ACT, PSAT, and SAT. In addition, we have established a dual degree program through which our students take college courses starting as early as 10th grade.

When a student realizes he or she can succeed in a college-level class, self-confidence levels soar. And college admissions officers take note.

There are three additional steps in the "no excuses" formula:

  • Counselors guiding the students through each step of the college application process, including leading college visits and trips to college fairs.
  • Admissions officers being invited into urban high schools for pre-interviews with students.
  • Students being provided with opportunities to earn scholarships and other financial support for college tuition.
  • If this "no excuses" approach toward high school graduation works in Camden, why then couldn't it also work in Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Detroit, or anywhere else? Meeting Grad Nation's goal of 90 percent graduation from high school by 2015 is a moral imperative for our country. Exceeding it would be the ultimate victory.