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While the high-school graduation rate is being celebrated at a record high, many school districts are grappling with a much different reality.

Kids in struggling communities and socially isolated neighborhoods far too often follow a predictable pattern: They miss some school, get in some trouble, and soon find themselves failing courses. If they fail too many, they are held back and asked to try again under the same conditions. The next step is often a stint in an alternative or virtual school before they leave school without a diploma.

At a time when little to no work exists for a high school dropout to support a family, the community, as a result, falls deeper into despair. But this pattern is preventable — even in the toughest schools. Take Noe Castro’s story.

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Four years ago, Castro never dreamed that he would graduate from high school — much less college. He carried too big a burden for a teenager: His parents had split up, his mom was ill, his dad wasn’t around, and he was working late nights at a gas station. Castro was on the fast track to dropping out. What made the difference was that someone at his high school stepped in before it was too late.

At 14, Castro was identified as a student in danger of dropping out of San Antonio’s Burbank High School. He was paired with a mentor who regularly checked in with him, and he received one-on-one tutoring. With the additional help, he forged through school, graduating in 2016. He hopes to eventually earn a kinesiology degree.

Noe’s trajectory was changed due to committed teachers and administrators working with Diplomas Now, a nonprofit partnership that identifies who will drop out based on a student’s poor attendance, behavior and course performance. Our research shows that sixth and ninth graders who are deficient in one of these three areas are two to three times more likely to drop out than their peers.

Three partner organizations complete the Diplomas Now model: City Year, an AmeriCorps organization that puts recent college grads in schools to provide one-on-one mentoring and tutoring for kids with early-warning indicators; Talent Development Secondary, a Johns Hopkins program that develops school improvement models and support for teachers; and Communities In Schools, which provides social workers who help students with the greatest needs. Through the process, the students’ early-warning indicators are tracked and periodically revised.

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How does Diplomas Now perform on a larger scale? That question is at the center of an ongoing randomized control trial study involving 62 underserved schools in 11 urban districts from Boston to Los Angeles.

“At a time when little to no work exists for a high school dropout to support a family, the community, as a result, falls deeper into despair. But this pattern is preventable — even in the toughest schools.”

In 2010, Diplomas Now won a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to implement and study the model in middle and high schools.

These schools are among the nation’s most challenged: More than 90 percent of the 40,000 students qualified for free and reduced priced lunch, more than 60 percent were not proficient in math and English, a third had missed a month or more of school, a third had been suspended and a third were too old for their grade.

An independent study shows promise: After just two years, Diplomas Now had successfully reduced these signs at a statistically significant rate better than the study’s comparison schools. That’s good news because the United States is at a critical moment in the effort to improve schools where too many students continue to struggle.

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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returns the responsibility for school improvement to states and districts, but the new law still comes with a few requirements. Districts must use evidence-based reforms in the lowest performing schools — and a portion of Title I dollars has been set aside to help. Moreover, despite moves by Congress to rescind federal accountability rules crafted to help states implement ESSA, care was taken in the language of the law to define what is meant by evidence. “Strong evidence” is defined as at least one randomized control trial with a positive, statistically significant impact on student outcomes.

That requirement seems straightforward enough. The catch, though, is that such studies are extremely difficult to come by. Only about one in 10 such studies in education achieves such outcomes. But with the latest findings, evidence backing early-warning systems is building.

So where do we go from here? For districts that adopt early-warning systems and evidence-based models like Diplomas Now to support their lowest performing schools, it should mean lower dropout rates — thus more productive communities. And most important, for struggling students, it will mean more veer from the path of dropping out toward one of walking the stage at graduation, on track toward a successful future.

After all, shouldn’t success stories like Noe Castro’s be the rule for kids in high-poverty schools — not the exception?

Robert Balfanz is a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, and the co-founder of Diplomas Now.

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