Zara Lukens, Kory Kaneko, a, Will Jones, Kirsten Hoffman, Rachel Benton, Craig Agee, Kayla MitchellI’d like to introduce you to a group of personal “life coaches” in our schools. These men and women are LAP/Grad Advocates whose responsibilities include guiding a group of selected high school students to ensure they earn the right to dance a “pomp and circumstance” jig down the aisle at commencement. Their work is not easy and can, at times, seem daunting. But they are getting results!

General Colin Powell, former secretary of state and chair of the America’s Promise Alliance, often cites Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s simple but powerful statement: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” I couldn’t agree more. Our mission is about student success— equipping our students with the knowledge, skills and habits to be college, career and life ready. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that our graduates are competent, responsible and compassionate citizens. For our young people, a high school diploma is the gateway to future success. Yet, as a nation and a school district, we have some work to do to get more kids across the finish line—particularly students of color.

For the past two years, the Alliance has been traveling the country, raising awareness about how high dropout rates and low readiness for college and work compromise the nation’s future. In nearly all 50 states and 55 cities, the Alliance has convened Dropout Prevention Summits that have brought together nearly 30,000 mayors and governors, business and community leaders, school administrators, students and parents. Those communities have committed to concrete action plans designed to improve graduation rates. This past year, with support from President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Alliance launched an aggressive campaign—Grad Nation—to improve high school graduation rates one community at a time. Nationally, about one in four public school children drops out before finishing high school. That’s 1.3 million students a year—one every 26 seconds and 7,000 every school day. For the record, public schools have improved significantly over time. According to U.S. Census data from 1947-1950, the national graduation rate hovered in the low 30 percent range. Yet, the world our students face is much different than the world of our parents or grandparents. Post-secondary success in the 21st century requires a different set of skills and abilities.

How have our Vancouver students fared? Better—with a promising horizon in 2012 and beyond. Thanks to the leadership and collaboration of our high school principals and associates, counseling teams, LAP/Grad Advocates, faculty and staff, parents and families, partners and community, we’re making a difference together. Our on-time graduation rate (preliminary data) for the class of 2011 is more than 71 percent, up by seven percentage points from 2010. That’s right—a seven-point gain. Our extended graduation rate is more than 75 percent. In student terms, that equates to approximately 100 more on-time graduates than in the prior cohort year. Leading the way was Hudson’s Bay High School, which saw its on-time rate improve by 10 percent. These are great numbers that should make all of us proud!

This is just the beginning. With a systemic focus, a coherent action plan, and the dedication and tenacity of our entire VPS team, our goal over the next several years is to achieve an extended graduation rate of 80 percent. I’m confident we’ll get there. How so? We’re implementing systems and providing support to make it happen. We’ve examined how we manage student records, for example, to ensure that our data accurately reports school and district performance.

We’re tracking down students who have dropped out, and we’re re-enrolling them in a program that meets their needs. We’ve developed and deployed an early warning and intervention system—a data dashboard—used by school administrators and counselors to provide early targeted assistance for students so they are on-track to be on-time graduates by their senior year. And, we’re developing community-based partnerships to bring additional mentoring support to students who could benefit.

When I ask parents what they want most for their children, the responses typically reflect this sentiment: “We want our children to live happy and healthy lives, to develop the knowledge and skills to secure a living wage job, and to raise families of their own.” We can talk about the value added to our communities, our state, and our nation by a well-educated, highly trained work force. The national interest clearly is an important consideration, but when you remove all of that window dressing, it really comes down to the quality of life we hope to create for our children and our grandchildren. Fundamentally, that’s the legacy we all want to leave. And it is the legacy our LAP/Grad Advocates are creating for more of our students.

Have a terrific holiday season!

Take care,

Image: Steve's signature