Graduation Rate Booster Group Targets Poverty as Toughest Problem

Jul 7, 2015

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The leader of a group trying to boost the U.S. high school graduation rate says public school spending is off track.

Robert Balfanz with Diplomas Now said besides states cutting spending, they don't consider how much harder it is for schools in poor neighborhoods.

"Just like at the Olympics, if you do just a swan dive over the diving board and it's beautiful, you don't get many points," Balfanz said. "If you do a triple back flip with three twists and still splash, you get more points because we recognize it's a much greater degree of difficulty. In education, we don't do that."

Balfanz said students in areas of concentrated poverty have a graduation rate 20 points behind the national average. Concentrated poverty is where 40 percent or more of a census tract lives below the federal threshold.

Even though state spending is down, there's funding to be found where money is being wasted.

"Things like keeping ninth graders back a year. That has a very low success rate, but we're actually paying another $10,000 for them to come to school for that other year," Balfanz said. "We're spending a lot of money on vast security systems in schools. We're spending a lot of money on some various out-of-school tutoring things that aren't very effective."

Balfanz said schools should look closer at attendance, because it can show early warning signs students are at risk of dropping out.

"We're so hardwired to think 90 is an A, good, we miss the fact that you could have 90 percent average daily attendance and still have a quarter of your kids missing a month or more of school," he said. "It's different kids on different days making up that 90."

Diplomas Now is hosting its summer institute in Tulsa. The group works with Clinton Middle School and Webster High School.

In recognition of the group's success locally, Mayor Dewey Bartlett proclaimed July 7 Diplomas Now Day.