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Leadership Best Practices

How School Leaders Can Help Improve Graduation Rates

January 8th, 2019

College concept.In 2018, Richmond Public Schools had the lowest graduation rate in Virginia. Data showed that 75% of seniors graduated — a rate 16 percentage points below the state average. Despite the less than ideal results, Superintendent Jason Kamras said in a statement, “This data is not a reflection of our students’ abilities. It’s a reflection of our failure to provide them with the education they deserve. My administration is committed to changing this — once and for all — for every young person in RPS.” (Source: Richmond Times Dispatch1)

The goal of your school district is to educate the next generation of America’s leaders and to get all students through to graduation day. Today, having a high school diploma is the bare minimum required to pursue a higher education, gain entry level employment, or be accepted to a trade school.

This probably comes as no surprise to you or your school’s leaders, nor should they surprise to many of your students’ parents and guardians. Why then, do schools across the country continue to see unacceptably high dropout rates? Approximately 25 percent of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time, and more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States every year—the equivalent of one student every 26 seconds—or 7,000 young people each day.

Despite systemic, socioeconomic, regional, and other factors that impact high school graduation rates, you and your school’s leaders can make an impact on reducing the rate of dropouts in your district. With a concentrated focus on best practices proven to improve graduation rates, you can hand out more diplomas at the end of every school year.

Five Strategies to Improve Graduation Rates in Your High Schools

#1: Teach Students the Importance of a High School Diploma

Students who approach their academics with a, “When will I ever need to use this?” attitude are failing to see the long-term implications of how their high school education can enable them to pursue a trade or career in the future. Your students need to understand the value of receiving a diploma to keep them motivated to earn their own. Share the statistics below with your high school students:

  • 60% of job opportunities in the skilled labor force require a high school diploma.
  • Higher salaries are typically available to high school graduates. In fact, high school graduates make an average of $9,245 more per year than high school dropouts.
  • Receiving a high school diploma will open more doors and create better opportunities.

#2: Help Students Make a Successful Transition to High School

Group of happy students

According to Education Week, research shows that students are more likely to earn a diploma if they do well in ninth grade, which means that helping students make a successful transition from middle school to high school is critical to ensuring students return for tenth grade and ultimately earn a diploma.2 Work with your faculty to monitor the individual and collective progress of your freshmen, and watch for proven early-warning indicators that a student is at risk. Such warning signs include earning more than one failing grade in a core course per semester and not accumulating enough credits to advance to sophomore year.

#3: Foster a Safe and Positive Learning Environment

Students will be more likely to remain enrolled if they enjoy coming to school every day. A critical component of their enjoyment centers around whether or not they feel safe and supported within school walls. Work with faculty, parents, and your student body to foster a culture of acceptance and support of all students, regardless of race, religion, abilities, and household income. Doing so will allow students to focus on their classroom assignments and will reduce rates absenteeism and truancy. Further, create school breakfast, lunch and after school extracurricular opportunities to help students become more engaged.

#4: Provide Vocation Course Options

While many of your graduates will likely move on to earn a two or four-year college degree, the college experience may not be the right fit or of interest to all your students. That does not mean, however, that those students who do not intend to move on to college after high school do not need to earn their high school diploma. Show students who are not on the college track what other career and skill development opportunities are available to them after they graduate by offering career and technical education courses, either at your school or with local partner organizations or community colleges. Once students find a passion and realize they have the skill and aptitude to obtain their goals, they will be more likely to remain on track to earn the high school diploma needed to pursue a technical or vocational certification.

#5: Engage Parents in the Process

Research demonstrates that family engagement is the most accurate predictor of a student’s success in school. Encourage parents to remain involved and informed about their child’s performance—whether the child is performing to acceptable standards or is struggling to meet expectations. Send regular communications home regarding grades and the completion of assignments. Enable teachers to hold one-on-one meetings with parents to discuss issues and areas of opportunity, and invite parents on-site to brainstorm strategies for ways that families and the school can work collaboratively to elevate the success of all students. When parents are involved, regardless of whether or not they earned a high school or advanced degree, their child will be more likely to remain focused on achieving their academic goals.

It Takes a Village

It will take a multi-pronged approach, and the support of all faculty, staff, community members, and families associated with your school district to help improve your schools’ graduation rates. However, when fewer young people drop out of high school, the entire community benefits from higher community-wide buying power, higher-rated schools, and higher property values. Under your leadership and with a committed focus on improving the graduation rates of your district, you will best arm your students with the skills and education they need to chart a successful path for their future.

1. Mattingly, J. (2018, October 01). Richmond Public Schools has the worst high school graduation rate in Virginia. Retrieved January 8, 2019, from

2. (n.d.). 11 Facts About High School Dropout Rates. Retrieved January 8, 2019, from

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