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THE DISTRICT ROLE IN GRADUATION RATE IMPROVEMENT: New Report Identifies Promising Practices from Five California School Districts

A new report from American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the California Dropout Research Project (CDRP) at the University of California–Santa Barbara identifies promising practices used by California school districts that saw up to a 26 percentage-point increase in their high school graduation rates from School Year (SY) 2009–10 to SY 2012–13.

“Much of the research on dropout prevention has been focused on school-level programs and policies,” said Helen Duffy, a senior researcher at AIR and lead author of the study. “This study allowed us to take a look at successful school districts and learn what factors they considered crucial in reducing their dropout rates.”

The report, The District Role in Graduation Rate Improvement, is based on interviews with administrators at five of the ten districts in California with the largest increases in high school graduation rates. At the same time, however, the report acknowledges that many of the districts studied had graduation rates lower than the state average, as shown in the table below. “We cannot say with certainty what caused the growth in graduation rates,” the report notes. “What we report are district and school leader perceptions of what might have contributed to their success.”

School District Graph

According to the report, the policies and practices district leaders cited most often include

  • allowing students to choose among varied academic programs, often built around career interests;
  • offering students a menu of school and credit-recovery options, giving them extra support, and smoothing transitions between high school and higher education;
  • improving data systems to spotlight problems and build a sense of urgency, identify students in need of help, drive professional development, and hold schools accountable for progress;
  • convening school staff members both within and across districts, and ensuring that the right staff members are in place to implement the programs; and
  • partnering with businesses, nonprofits, and higher education campuses.

“Despite recent, overall improvements in high school graduation rates in California and nationwide, there remain vast differences in rates among districts,” said Russell Rumberger, director of the CDRP. “The report provides valuable lessons that struggling districts can adopt to improve their graduation rates.”

The District Role in Graduation Rate Improvement is available at

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