The District Role in Graduation Rate Improvement: Promising Practices from Five California Districts

Helen Duffy, Lindsay Poland, and Jarah Blum, AIR
Cameron Sublett, University of California, Santa Barbara

While evidence is mounting about school-level programs and policies that contribute to increased high school graduation rates, little attention has been paid to the role that districts can play in creating conditions for and supporting higher graduation rates. This study chronicles the Stockton Unified School District's response to high schools labeled "dropout factories" and explores how they addressed the issue.

In 2007, three high schools in Stockton, CA, were labeled “dropout factories” in a Johns Hopkins University study. The Stockton Unified School District responded by developing several small high schools as alternatives to its large, comprehensive schools. It offered a special program for students to make up missed credits, mixing online and small-group instruction. And it beefed up its data system to allow early identification and intervention for students with academic and attendance problems. Between the 2009-10 and 2012-13 school years, Stockton’s graduation rate jumped from 66.1 percent to 83.1 percent—one of the largest improvements in California.

The study’s authors identified the ten districts in California with the largest increases in high school completion rate and interviewed administrators at five of the districts to see what policies and programs they believed were the key to success.

The practices district leaders cited most often include data use (to build a sense of urgency, hold schools accountable, and drive professional development), convening school staff both within and across districts, and ensuring that the right staff are in place to implement the programs and policies. The policies that district leaders said were essential to their success were those related to school choice and providing students with a menu of school and credit recovery options as well as higher education articulation policies. Districts cited the importance of credit recovery and intervention programs for students at-risk for not graduating on time. Other contextual factors included leadership consistency, developing partnerships, securing grants, and creating a sense of collective responsibility for the success of all students.