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Robert Balfanz named “Champion of Change” by White House

Robert Balfanz named “Champion of Change” by White House
 

Robert Balfanz, a senior research scientist at The Johns Hopkins University, is among 10 education leaders named White House “Champions of Change” for their commitment to furthering education among African Americans.

More Information from the White House

See more information at the White House website.

White House honoring Balfanz as “Champion of Change”

Robert Balfanz, a senior research scientist at The Johns Hopkins University, is among 10 education leaders named White House “Champions of Change” for their commitment to furthering education among African Americans.

He will be honored in ceremonies this afternoon at The White House. To watch the event live, visit http://www.whitehouse.gov/live at 4:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

Balfanz is a national expert who focuses on America’s dropout crisis, chronic absenteeism and the warning signs that show as early as sixth grade which students are likely to drop out of high school. He works with low-performing schools across the country, many in high-poverty neighborhoods, through Talent Development Secondary, a comprehensive school improvement model created at the university’s Center for Social Organization of Schools.

“My professional work has revolved around figuring out what it will take to enable all our students to graduate from high school prepared for adult success,” Balfanz wrote in a blog prepared for the White House website. “It is driven by the belief that . . . far too many of our students, especially students of color who live in poverty, fail to graduate from high school. It is an affront to what America can and needs to be.”

Balfanz is a professor at the university’s School of Education and is a co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center. He is also the founder and director of Diplomas Now, a national model for school improvement that combines the work of three nonprofit organizations in some of the nation’s most challenging schools in 12 cities. In 2010, Diplomas Now was awarded a federal $30 million Investing in Innovation grant to expand the program and evaluate its effects.

The Champions of Change program was created as a part of President Obama’s Winning the Future initiative. The White House regularly features individuals, businesses and organizations that are doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.

“President Obama has made providing a complete and competitive education for all Americans – from cradle to career – a top priority,” said Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett in a statement released by The White House. “This week, we look forward to welcoming Champions of Change who have been working to ensure that all African American students receive an education that fully prepares them for high school graduation, college completion, and productive careers.”

Robert Balfanz’s Blog Post

My professional work has revolved around figuring out what it will take to enable all our students to graduate from high school prepared for adult success. It has been driven by a belief that our current outcomes, in which far too many of our students, especially students of color who live in poverty, fail to graduate from high school. That is an affront to what America can and needs to be. The good news is that for the first time in forty years, the nation’s high school graduation rate is improving, and at a significant rate. Over the past four years the graduation rate has increased by five percentage points. Those gains, moreover, have been driven by improvements in the graduation rates of African American and Latino students, the very students for whom the dropout crisis has been the most acute. Much work, however, remains in order to insure that all students have the educational experiences and supports they need to graduate from high school prepared for college and career. This is essential because there is no work in the 21st century to support a family for young adults without high school diplomas.

The challenge that remains for African American students is that currently even with the progress of the past five years, one in three does not graduate with their class and one in four attends a high school where graduation is not the norm. About 11 percent of high schools, 1,400 in number, produce half of the nation’s African American and Latino dropouts. Nearly all these high schools, in turn, educate students who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. To move forward, we must organize our efforts, not only to turn around these schools, and insure they provide a quality education that prepares their students for success in the 21st century, but also to insure that the students within them have the supports they need to overcome the challenges of poverty. Poverty makes it more difficult for students in the nation’s low graduation rate high schools to come to school every day, pay attention in class, and get their school work done. Yet our research and that of others shows that the best teachers and most evidence-based curricula will have muted impacts if students are not able to attend, focus, and try.

Fortunately, it is being demonstrated more and more that the hungry bear of poverty can be pushed back. Whole school instructional and teaching improvements can be combined with enhanced, and through early warning systems, better-targeted student supports provided by a growing number of non-profits and community organizations using evidence-based strategies, to keep many more students on the path to high school graduation. Our Diplomas Now program, for example, is showing that chronic absenteeism, behavioral struggles, and course failures in our most challenged middle and high schools can be reduced by at least half.

Yet to truly provide all students who live in poverty with reliable pathways to adult success bolder action is needed. We need an innovation competition to redesign middle and high school so that it will be routine for students who live in high-poverty communities to take and succeed in high school credit bearing classes in 8th grade, and college credit bearing classes in 12th grade. This will provide students with direct experience with the expectations of the next level of schooling, while still providing the familiarity and support of their current school, where they are seen as the most advanced, rather than the least experienced, students. This is critical because we know it is in the transition years, 6th grade, 9th grade and the first year of college when most of our high-poverty students fall off the path to high school graduation and post-secondary success. As importantly, this would enable students to complete college in three years, which means financial aid can be spread over fewer years, increasing the amount available each year.

Finally, and this might be the best part, what would have been the fourth year of college can be used as a year of community and national service (in exchange for enhanced financial aid), in the highest-needs schools to provide the person power needed to give students the tutoring, mentoring, role models, nagging, and nurturing they will need to overcome the challenges of poverty and succeed in more demanding courses.

There is one final component that will be required. It was driven home to me during a visit to a school we work with in Chicago. The ninth grade class was reading A House on Mango Street, and the teacher, as a discussion prompt, asked students if they could, would they leave their neighborhood and if so why. Almost all said they would, and almost every one of them said, in one way or another, it was because of their near daily exposure to violence. Part of me at that moment felt that instead of seeking to improve the school, we should be organizing an evacuation. But then one student said it was only worth leaving if the violence did not follow them. What we need to acknowledge is that within the subset of schools that drive the dropout crisis, there is a further subset, which needs to take on a therapeutic role. They need to both help students cope and overcome the negative and often crippling aspects of exposure to violence and show that alternatives to violence exist.

The truth is, in our most poverty-ridden neighborhoods, the public school is often the only societal institution with a physical presence. It needs to offer more than just academic instruction; it needs to provide students with the academic and non-academic experience and supports they need to thrive. But at the moment these schools do not have the resources for this mission. We need to become much better at integrating the funds and efforts housed in other city, state, and federal social service and justice agencies, usually disconnected from the schools, into a set of preventative, therapeutic, and wraparound supports provided in the schools in our most challenged neighborhoods.

  1. Lemont A.Baker09-23-13

    Thank you for being a pioneer to shade insight and relevant evidence base data that has inspired me. I am a PhD student at Northcentral University that has an interest in high school dropout rates among African American males living in Chicago. Dr. Balfanz your life mission and story has inspired me. Thank you and hopefully, one day will meet.

  2. Alan Traeger06-08-14

    I am a retired educator/administrator of students with special needs. I wholeheartedly support what you are trying to accomplish. Your program contains so many critical components necessary for student achievement. One of the most critical components is the coaching of teachers and principals. Their support and willingness to adapt to your program’s aim is so critical.
    I would love, if possible, to in some way be a part of your team
    Alan Traeger

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