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Graduation Guides Promise High Schoolers A Clearer Path To Success

Chelsea Beck

Aniya Cox is sure she wants to be a dermatologist. What she's been less sure about is what she needs to do to get there — she's just 16, a sophomore at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C.

She can remember, at various points of the past two years, desperately trying to navigate all that's required to graduate high school and get into college.

"I was all over the place, I was frustrated," Cox said. "I didn't know what I needed to do."

Cox said even the process of asking her teachers for advice — and finding time to meet with them — was confusing.

Today, D.C.'s public schools are rolling out an intervention they hope will address concerns like Cox's. Twice a year through the fall semester of senior year, high schoolers in D.C. will now receive a document that tracks their progress towards graduation requirements and gives them information about college and career options. The district is calling it a "Guide to Graduation, College, and Career," and it's a PDF personalized for each student. The guides, which will be mailed and available online, are part of the district's efforts to boost college and career readiness among its students — and part of a larger movement across the country to make education data more available and accessible.

The implementation comes just one year after D.C.'s Office of the State Superintendent of Education found 34 percent of D.C.'s high school graduates hadn't actually met the requirements for receiving a diploma. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser requested the report days after NPR and WAMU published a story that found students had missed months of class at D.C.'s Ballou High School but were still permitted to graduate.

Last year, D.C. reported that its graduation rate for black and Latino students dropped. The Office of the State Superintendent said it used additional levels of verification to calculate graduation results as part of its ongoing monitoring of the school system's graduation policies.

"It's definitely an enhancement to our transparency around graduation," said DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee of the guides. "It's a way that we can monitor, along with families, where students are on their journey to graduation."

Ferebee also said the guides are part of a larger strategy to boost enrollment at high schools that have been losing students. They will help promote more college and career-related programming, which parents have been asking for. He said the guides can be used "to connect those options with student interests and goals."

Ferebee and Bowser announced the rollout of the guides, along with two new early college programs at DCPS high schools, at a press conference Thursday.

The DCPS guide is a 7-page document. It includes an unofficial transcript along with information about progress towards graduation requirements, likelihood of admission to area colleges and universities and a personalized guide for career opportunities.

If a student is not on pace to graduate, those sections of the report appear in red. If a student's academic record says they aren't on track with History credits, for example, the guide will say so. The packet also contains a map of college choices, categorized as "likely," "match" or "reach" schools based on the student's SAT or PSAT score and GPA. And it ends with a section on careers that contains personalized sample jobs — and projected salaries — for each student (Each DCPS high school student fills out a survey indicating future career interests at the start of each school year).

A few other school districts in the country — including Long Beach Unified, Orange County Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools — have already begun using similar guides.

In Long Beach, the public school district is in its second year of implementing them. Robert Tagorda, Director of Equity, Access, and College & Career Readiness for the district, said the guides are popular — and Long Beach is now planning to roll out a high school readiness guide for its middle schoolers.

Tagorda said the guides can't be viewed in isolation. Long Beach partners with the University of Southern California on college advising and almost half of its 11th and 12th graders enroll in at least one AP course. Well before the guides were implemented, the school district was seeing increases in test scores, graduation rates, and college-attendance rates.

But Tagorda also said the guides themselves have value. Distributing them, for him, is a matter of equity, and has helped to ensure the quality of counseling and support for students is standardized across the district. In addition, he says, the guides are helping Long Beach make a complicated process digestible — and accessible to families of all backgrounds.

"Students are inundated with data," Tagorda said, but, "What students and families want to know is, 'What do I need to really understand that will make a difference for my student's admission to college?'"

Back in D.C., the guides are a kind of insurance policy, explains Daniel West, who runs the college and career readiness program at D.C.'s Eastern Senior High School. Even if a student is not meeting with their counselor as they are supposed to, the school system is still equipping them with easily digestible information and advice.

"Even if that student doesn't continue to engage with adults in the building who want to help provide them with resources, they now have a document they can work with by themselves," West said.

D.C. officials say the guides will be made available in the three languages spoken most commonly among DCPS families — English, Spanish and Amharic. Translation help for additional languages will be available by request. Mailing a paper copy is also really valuable, explains Aniya Cox, the sophomore at Eastern High, since not all her classmates have consistent access to the Internet.

The most immediate concern, for Cox, is getting community service hours: on her guide, that section is highlighted in red because she hasn't completed any of the 100 hours D.C. requires of its students. Her summer is open still, so she's hoping to get her service hours in then.

"I really need to get that done," she said with a chuckle, her eyes widening. "I really need to get that done."

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