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Diploma Plus
Now chair of the board, William Diehl has been involved with Diploma Plus since its founding in Boston almost 20 years ago. Credit: Photo courtesy of William Diehl

One of the most vexing problems for high schools — and society at large — is what to do about students who have repeatedly failed a grade and are on the verge of dropping out. For almost two decades, Diploma Plus has operated small alternative programs for these students. Rather than force them to catch up on all the hours they’ve missed, the nonprofit’s schools allow participants to progress as they learn — removing a major barrier to graduation.

While data are scarce, Diploma Plus appears to outperform many other programs serving a similarly challenging population. A 2009 study by the American Youth Policy Forum concluded that Diploma Plus’s five New York City schools had higher graduation rates than average for such programs, citing high student engagement. But Diploma Plus has faced challenges, shrinking from 29 schools nationally in 2010 to eight today. The decline came as urban school districts and private donors lost interest in funding small schools, amid concerns they were not living up to their potential. This year, though, Diploma Plus opened a new school in New Haven, Conn., and hopes to expand once again. It has launched an initiative to help students get accepted to college and obtain financial aid, reporting a successful pilot in New York.

William Diehl, chair of the Diploma Plus board, has been involved in various capacities since the beginning. He recently spoke with The Hechinger Report about the key components of the schools’ efforts to prepare students coming from behind.

Question: How did Diploma Plus get started?

Answer: Diploma Plus started working with a few small alternative education programs in Boston that were trying to increase rigor in the classroom and develop a pathway to college and career. It was a grassroots kind of thing. Then the Gates Foundation in 1998 or so wanted to expand into working in small schools dealing with students who were the most left behind. That gave us funding and allowed us to expand the network. We ended up with 33.

Q: After that expansion, though, the number of schools shrank dramatically. What explains that?

A: A lot of it is the change in funding, a switch in focus [by Gates and others] away from the funding of small schools]. Although it may sound like ‘What happened?’ it’s more, ‘How did we manage to sustain this excellent program without additional funding?’ I think it is attributable to the model itself and the outcomes it’s had.

Q: What is your model?

A: One area is a performance or competency-based learning approach. That’s now more popular but in the early 2000s, it was very innovative. It ended up being a hands-on, project-based learning approach so students had to first learn, then demonstrate their learning through projects, performances and portfolios.

“In most education settings, the constant is time, and learning is a variable. Our approach is that learning is constant, and timing is the variable.”

We are working with students who have fallen behind. Some have no hope of catching up if they have to be judged on time [in school]. If we can move away from seat time and toward learning competencies, we can accelerate their accumulation of credit and speed up or slow down based on their interests and abilities.

Rather than ninth, 10th, 11th grade, we talk about a foundation level, a presentation level and a final level. Students move through those at their own pace. In most education settings, the constant is time and learning is a variable. Our approach is that learning is constant and timing is the variable.

Related: There’s no good way to know how California’s alternative schools are working

We focus on creating a school culture that’s safe, supportive and engaging. A lot of students come to Diploma Plus schools with a poor attendance record. Some have discipline issues. Our theory is that students have to be present, engaged and supported for learning to take place. So we do a lot with [advising] students and coming up with expectations, consequences, etc., so students know what is expected of them.

[Another] piece is college and career readiness. We do partnerships with colleges, college visits. Our students largely come from families where going to college is not the norm. The more we can get them on campus, so it’s not a scary place but a place that is supportive and challenging, the more likely they are to have success there.

Related: One principal’s fight to save a flooded Coney Island school

Q: What is the average size of your schools?

A: It varies between 200 and 400. If you get too much below that, it becomes difficult to field the number of teachers and staff that you need. In terms of why it’s that small, our students typically need a lot of personal attention and support. They need to know there are people in the building who know them, care about them.

Q: Are there things that conventional high schools can borrow from your model?

Absolutely. [One is] focusing on establishing a safe, supportive engaging school culture. There’s been such a focus on high stakes testing that there hasn’t been enough attention to the social emotional learning and the safe supportive environment that students need in order to thrive.

The second thing is project-based learning, which is more hands-on, collaborative. For a lot of our students, who are not strong book learners but are much more hands-on or performance learners, that model is a better way for them to learn and to demonstrate that they’re learning

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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