National effort aims to raise graduation rates

ROCHESTER — The city of Rochester hosted one of the first 15 community summits that will continue across the country over the next four years as part of an effort to raise the national high-school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

More than 300 leaders from area business, government, civic and nonprofit organizations, city schools, colleges, foundations and faith-based groups participated in the Oct. 30 Grad Nation Summit, according to information from the Rochester Area Community Foundation. The foundation sponsored the summit locally along with ROC the Future.

Nationally, the effort is spearheaded by America’s Promise Alliance, which was created by Gen. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, explained spokeswoman Colleen Wilbur. Rochester was chosen as one of the initial cities in which to begin talking about how to reach the graduation goal because of the work it has already engaged in to raise those rates, she said.

That includes the work of ROC the Future, which has taken a "cradle-to-career" approach to improve living conditions and academic achievement for kids living in the city of Rochester, Wilbur noted. Rochester leaders are also cognizant of the need to close the gap between students attending some of the best schools in the country only a few miles away from some of the worst schools, she remarked.

"That (disparity) is not OK," she said. "We need to change that. … We have a joint responsibility that every single child, whether they live in Rochester, Brighton or Penfield, receives a top-quality education."

To help communities understand what it takes to provide the environment that leads to children receiving a top education, Wilbur said that the alliance offers a model of the "Five Promises."

That model strives to ensure that children nationally have: caring adults, a safe place to be before and after school, a healthy start, an effective education and the opportunities to help others.

In such cities as Houston, which has already seen upticks in its graduation rates, communities are working collaboratively across all sectors to improve children’s chances for success, Wilbur said. Houston began an "early warning system" to track kids and provide interventions when needed. In Tennessee, the business community led an effort to create "Alignment Nashville" that connects educators with organizations and companies to improve academic achievement, she noted.

Improving collaboration, communication and coordination of efforts were the focus of Rochester’s Grad Night summit, explained Jennifer Leonard, the Rochester Area Community Foundation’s executive director.

"This (summit) is an opportunity for community leaders to gather together and take our focus on improving education to the next level," she added. "We can all play a part in lifting all these numbers."

Aligning the work of area groups and organizations is the goal of ROC the Future, not creating new programs, explained its chairwoman and alliance director, Anne Kress and Leonard Brock, respectively.

"Our goal is to use data to improve practices not only prove practices," added Brock, executive for special projects at The Children’s Agenda.

The need for such initiatives is obvious when research shows that more than 60 percent of jobs require some form of college education, said Kress, president of Monroe Community College. And those students who are prepared for college are more likely to succeed whether they study engineering or precision manufacturing, she added.

"And ROC the Future is one of the systematic efforts to boost achievement for all students, not just a few," said Brock.

Its "cradle-to-career" mission, they said, seeks to ensure that Rochester children are born healthy and ready for school, do not miss school, receive outside support as needed and read by third grade.

"We are working together because we recognize that no matter what you do in Rochester, we are all in the K-12 business … if we want to build a more prosperous region," Kress said.

To raise the achievement of students nationwide, communities must break cycles of intergenerational poverty as well as produce a generation of high-school graduates who are prepared for career, life and the military, added the summit’s keynote speaker Patrick Corvington.

Children born into poverty are less likely to read by third grade, the level at which students must transition from learning to read to reading to learn, which then causes many of them to fall behind and eventually drop out, said Corvington, a senior fellow for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Students who can’t read also can’t do math or any of the technological jobs that businesses are challenged to fill now or in the future, he added.

To reverse these trends, Corvington said that communities must ensure access to good prenatal care and early childhood services so students are ready to learn. Students also must attend school every day and have opportunities to enroll in summer programs that will provide intellectual and physical activities, he said.

"We are focused on high-school graduation rates, but we have to start at the beginning, and be engaged and serve (students) from the day kids are born until they graduate from college," Corvington noted. "As Alma Powell said, this is the civil rights issue of this generation. This is make or break (time) for the future of our country … for the future of our communities."

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about high school graduation rates nationally, visit http://americaspromise. org. For more information about the ROC the Future initiative, visit http://ROCtheFuture.org.

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