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Playlist: American Graduate

Compiled By: New York Harbor School

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American Graduate (Series)

Produced by The National Center for Media Engagement

Most recent piece in this series:

An American Graduate - BUMP Records, KQED, and BAVC

From The National Center for Media Engagement | Part of the American Graduate series | 20:51


1. Thinking in the Now – Shanelle Silas, 3ss3ns, Cinco and Bhindi G

“Thinking in the Now” brings the perspective to the at-risk youth population, exploring reasons for dropping out. Often, students don’t realize the long-term impact of dropping out and leave school because it’s the easiest way at the moment. The BUMP crew recognizes the daily hardships and lives them personally, but they plead with those at risk to think long-term and persevere.

Written and performed by S. Silas, D. Evans, F. Blackwell, N. Gokul, J. Karon, S. Palacios

Produced by Cops-n-Robbers (JustKidding and MeMyselfni)


2. My Perfect School – Cinco and JustKidding

What does your perfect school look like? To Cinco and JustKidding, it’s a place for balanced learning and play, where you can sit in front and answer every question, where the teachers respect students and their dreams, and where student evaluation is based on models that fit the individual rather than one-size-fits-all letter grades.

Written and performed by F. Blackwell, J. Karon

Produced by JustKidding


3. Beauty – Anais Azul

Anais Azul gives a heartfelt vocal performance exploring true beauty – “liberation, education, desegregation,” according to the song. Physical beauty carries less weight in the long term than intellect, so “keep it together,” sings Azul.

Written and performed by A. Aragon, J. Karon

Produced by JustKidding


4. A Teacher’s Perspective – 3ss3ns, Bhindi G and Shanelle Silas

In this lyrically sincere track, 3ss3ns, Bhindi G and Shanelle Silas step into the shoes of a teacher at an under-performing school and face real-life hardships. Which student won’t show up tomorrow? How much are my students actually learning? Where’s the outside support? The BUMP trio may not answer these questions explicitly, but they bring them to the forefront of discussion.

Written and performed by D. Evans, N. Gokul, S. Silas, J. Karon

Produced by JustKidding


5. In A Classroom (Interlude) – Anais Azul

A passionate piece of spoken word brings the setting to the frontlines of a school, the classroom, questioning the authority of standardized evaluations and emphasizing the student’s need to stay alert and attentive.

Written and Performed by A. Aragon


6. No Motivation – Cinco and Bhindi G

Cinco and Bhindi G get real about the disparities faced by young minority students in low-income neighborhoods. It’s easy to drop out when you don’t learn anything in school and are just tested, and even easier when there are more pressing things at home and in the community to worry about.

Written and performed by F. Blackwell, N. Gokul, S. Palacios

Produced by MeMyselfni

Left Behind, Dropping Out

From WNPR Connecticut | 52:00

Every year, more than a million kids drop out of school. Without a diploma, they will have a tough time succeeding. But the problem starts much earlier than high school. This hour, we'll ask the big question: What works?

Originally created for American Graduate Day in September, this special continues to be a timely look at education in America.


Every year, more than a million kids drop out of school. Without a diploma, they will have a tough time succeeding. But the problem starts much earlier than high school. This hour, we'll ask the big questions: Why are students dropping out? What's the cost? And, what works to keep them in school and graduate? We’ll talk to Arne Duncan, the education secretary in charge of turning around the problem. And we'll look at the dropout crisis through the eyes of the kids themselves. You'll hear stories from:
  • Chicago, Duncan's hometown, where we try to find out why students leave school in the first place.
  • San Diego, where a mentoring program has helped cut dropout rates substantially.
  • Washington, DC, where we examine the cost of dropouts to families.
  • Boston, where we look at whether the President's call for a "dropout age" of 18 could really work.
  • And New Haven, Connecticut, where students are given the "promise" of college if they work hard and stay in school.
This special is hosted by former NPR correspondent Andrea Seabrook, now host of her own blog DecodeDC.

It's part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), to help students stay on the path to graduation and future success. 

Listen to the full interview with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  
Listen to the full interview with Russell Rumberger, author of Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of School and What Can be Done About It.   

Fighting the Odds: Inside D.C.’s Dropout Crisis

From WAMU | Part of the WAMU 88.5's American Graduate Series series | 51:30

In a special production by WAMU 88.5 News, we focus on a singularly important topic in Washington, D.C. – the large number of students who drop out of school.


More than 40 percent of students in the city’s public schools fail to complete their studies within four years.  Over the course of the next hour, we’ll meet some of those students, as well as the teacher, administrators, and volunteers trying to keep them on track.  We’ll also go overseas, to find out why the U.S. continues to fall behind other countries when it comes to graduation.  And we’ll look closely at the trajectory of a single school that is consistently one of the lowest-performing in the District.

Part One: Failing at the “ABCs” – The Heart of the Dropout Crisis

The hallways of Browne Education Campus in Northeast D.C. are plastered with colorful posters designed to motivate students and staff.  “Think Big!” they say, and “Teachers Make All Other Professions Possible!”

It’s part of Principal Rashida Tyler’s efforts to raise expectations at this school, one of the lowest-performing in the District. But Tyler says she’s found educational catch phrases are much easier said than done.

“It’s amazing if we change one aspect of our school programming how hard it is just to get everybody to buy in and to understand the rationale,” she says.

Tyler has set an ambitious goal of a 20 percent increase in math and reading test scores at Browne. But she says she wants “to see our students love learning and set them up for life. That’s the kind of kids I want to raise and it’s just really hard and it hasn’t been the norm for our students.”

Ninety percent of the students at this kindergarten through 8th grade school come from low-income families. And the overwhelming majority of children are struggling academically. Only 22 percent of students can read at grade level. 

Browne Education Campus is required by the federal government to improve.   Last year administrators partnered with a Johns Hopkins University program called ‘Diplomas Now.’ It’s an education model that involves organizing students into small groups, providing specialized curricula and one-on-one mentoring.

Thomas Acampora is responsible for implementing the program at Browne. He understands the challenges because when he was a high school teacher most of his students came in “massively underprepared” -- and not just academically.  

“Underprepared for following their own schedule, underprepared for dealing with a large number of students in a class, underprepared to read and write on a regular basis and that just creates frustration,” he said.

So Acampora says starting early with interventions makes sense.

“When I taught 9th grade there were a lot of cases where it seemed like we hit the child too late. If you identify the problem early why not solve it?” he said. 

For many years, identifying the heart of the problem – exactly how many students are dropping out – wasn’t always easy. Robert Balfanz with Johns Hopkins University is one of the nation’s top experts on dropouts. He says just a decade ago, the percentage of students completing high school was measured using a telephone survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

That survey, he said, “doesn't include people in prison, doesn’t include people who don’t want to talk to people who call them at night and also people know it's important to graduate so when you ask them how many people in your household graduated from high school, [they say] ‘Oh, everybody.’  So all sides sort of inflated it and agreed we don't have a problem when we really did.”

S ince then, the methods used by different states to calculate graduation rates have been dizzyingly different, which meant they couldn’t be compared.  Until now.  A new method, called the adjusted graduation cohort rate, requires states to follow every individual child from the ninth grade on until he or she walks across the stage to receive that diploma. It takes into account students who change schools and get held back.

Under the new, more rigorous count, D.C.’s graduation rate appears to have plummeted overnight. It was 76 percent. Now, it’s 59 percent.  D.C. officials have set an ambitious goal to improve that.  By 2017, they say, they want 75 percent of all high school freshmen to graduate in four years. But it isn’t clear how exactly the District will meet that target.


Part Two: A Struggling School Seeks a Turnaround

Every morning before class, City Year volunteers gather in front of Browne Education Campus in Northeast D.C. to do “power cheers” with students.  Eighteen-year-old Anna Gaeckle is one of those volunteers.  She says her goal is to get students to smile at least twice every day.

“I dance around or I’ll make up songs about them or talk in weird voices,” she said. “A lot of them are in really tough situations so I want them to know that someone loves them.”

Truancy is a problem at Browne, and on a single day last November, there were eight fights. The police were called in to deal with two of them. Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University says Browne is not unique. High poverty schools across the U.S. often share common characteristics.

“My basic haiku is ‘Too many needy kids, not enough skilled and stable adults,’” he said.

Eight years ago, Balfanz co-founded Talent Development High School in Baltimore, Maryland.  Teachers use specialized curricula created by Johns Hopkins researchers and get a lot of additional training. Classroom ratios are kept at about 20 students per teacher, and students are taught a range of life skills, such as how to manage their time and how to talk to adults. 

Now, Browne Education Campus is using that model, known as “Diplomas Now,” to try to keep kids on track.  The program costs approximately 600 dollars more per student each year, which is being paid for with federal dollars. Thomas Acampora helps implement the Diplomas Now model at Browne. He says a school with a positive culture and great teachers can work for approximately 80 percent of the children. Another 15 percent need a little more “nagging and nurturing,” which the City Year volunteers help with.

“And there’s kind of a 5 percent that’s really rough and really tough and has challenges that’s outside the normal scope of a school to solve,” he said. “They have some significant need that needs to be met before they’re ready to learn.”

And that’s where another partner in Browne’s support network, Communities in Schools, comes in.

Deon Toon is a counselor with the program who works at Browne Education Campus. She connects children with social services and teaches students to work out their differences, because every day, neighborhood rivalries and cyber bullying spill into school through Facebook and other social media sites.

Toon says most students want to do well in school but often aren’t sure how. So her job takes time and patience.

“You go home you have your dirty martini, you come back and start all over,” she said with a laugh.

At the end of the first year of the Diplomas Now program,  Acampora says Browne is showing results…

“There were 80 students last year who were off track in terms of attendance within grades 6 through 8,” he said.  “And by the end of the year, we had only about 12 students who had off track attendance.”

He says behavior problems are down 40 percent and there was an almost 20 percent drop in students failing math.

Acampora estimates the extra adults working at Browne through the Diplomas Now program put in approximately 600 additional hours each week to support students, staff and teachers. Multiply that effort by thousands of students in schools across the country, and you get a sense of how big the problem is.  



Part Three: Looking Ahead, Locally and Globally

City Year volunteers stand outside Northeast D.C.’s Browne Education Campus, supervising students who run around playing before the morning bell. Twelve-year-old Joseph Brooks is getting his homework reviewed by a volunteer.  He got an A in reading, a score which makes him beam.  He says he didn’t always make good grades.

“I was a bad student,” he said. “Doing bad things like run the halls. I wasn’t doing my work, just sitting talking people in class. And hitting people a lot. I liked hitting boys and girls.”

Joseph showed all the risk indicators for dropping out. He didn’t attend classes, got into trouble and routinely received poor grades. That changed when the national program Diplomas Now was implemented at Browne. It has a three-pronged approach to help the lowest performing schools improve.  City Year volunteers mentor children, Johns Hopkins University provides professional development training for teachers and the Communities in Schools organization helps connect families with social services.   Now Joseph’s D’s have become As.

“Yesterday I was excited!,” he said.  “I got the highest grade in 6th grade! Everybody else had Cs and Ds.”

When Joseph grows up, he’ll compete with students from all over the world for jobs. And statistics show that three out of every ten U.S. students won’t graduate with their high school class. That has implications for the nation.  In 2009, President Obama told students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia that dropping out was not patriotic.

“I f you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country,” he said.

The president has said other countries were “out-educating us.” It seems they’re also out-graduating us. Andreas Schleicher is the Deputy Director for Education for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD. He says the U.S. used to be number one for high school graduation. But times have changed – in 2009, the U.S. was 21 out of 26 countries.

“The completion rate is pretty low by international standards,” he said.

Researcher Tom Loveless with the Brookings Institution says American schools have diluted their academic mission by emphasizing the social experience, such as sports, proms and clubs. Loveless says those activities teach qualities such as creativity and teamwork, but don’t boost your knowledge of mathematics or literature, so there’s a price to pay. When you do the statistical analysis of what countries are growing rapidly now they tend to be the countries that have an education system that’s focused on academic skills.”

Refocusing on those academic skills is part of the goal of the Diplomas Now program at Browne Education Campus.  Thomas Acampora,who’s responsible for running the program,  says it’s starting to work. Compared to last year at this time, he says, the number of students missing school is down 35 percent, behavior problems are down 55 percent and there’s at least a 60 percent drop in students failing English and Math.   Students have just completed DC’s standardized testing and the results will be out later this year.  

“Course performance tends to take the longest to fix because students have skill gaps and lag behind. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to catching a kid up,” he said.

The promising early gains at this school are in jeopardy though. Principal Rashida Tyler’s budget has been reduced by $300,000 for the next academic year. In an e-mail to staff she characterized the cuts as “devastating” and wrote, “it’s with a heavy heart Browne Elementary School will no longer be able to fund the Diplomas Now program.” Tyler would not talk about her decision, despite repeated requests.

Theodore Thompson is in charge of helping struggling DCPS schools make improvements. He says the cuts are coming because Browne is projected to have approximately 30 fewer students next year.  The budget of every school is tied to school enrollment. Thompson says Diplomas Now is a support program, designed to enhance what teachers do in the classroom.

“So principals have some tough decisions,” he said. Do I want to retain programs that support the work or do I want to put my investment in the work itself? That leads to student proficiency in standardized tests.”

A DCPS Spokesperson first said the District is cutting the program because it was not effective but Thompson says this was an “internal miscommunication.” He says he hasn’t seen a report on how effective the program has been… he just started in this job six months ago. Thompson says Diplomas Now is applying for grants and trying to raise the money it will need to stay involved at the school.  

Meanwhile there are still a couple months to go before the end of this academic year. Deon Toon is a  counselor with the nonprofit Communities in Schools, based at Browne. She says she worries especially about the eighth graders who are showing some progress but are now leaving to go to high schools where they might, as Toon says, be “swallowed up.”

“I hate it. We shelter them. Because although our kids like to act big and bad they’re not. I don’t think they’re prepared,” she said.

Acampora agrees.

“As a teacher that’s what I asked myself as well. ‘Is it a happy event? What does their future look like?’”

WAMU 88.5's American Graduate Series (Series)

Produced by WAMU

Most recent piece in this series:

The Impacts Of The High School Dropout Crisis

From WAMU | Part of the WAMU 88.5's American Graduate Series series | 06:41

School2_small With so much at stake, D.C. works to provide a second chance at graduation for dropouts.