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United Ways Helping Lift National Graduation Rate

The best part of my job is witnessing the real community impact that United Ways across America are fueling. Everywhere I go, I learn about great work that’s inspiring communities and changing people’s lives.

Six years ago United Way put a stake in the ground to increase the number of high school graduates, and since then United Ways all over have made education a priority, with some 90% of the network tackling this important issue.

And it’s paying off! Today, America’s graduation rate is higher than it’s ever been. The national graduation rate is now 80%, up from 73% in 2006. The Grad Nation Summit held in Washington, D.C. this week celebrated this milestone (as well as United Way’s work in middle school success).  Read the Grad Nation report here.

Of course, the real winners are the kids whose chances for success in post-secondary school, work and life are bolstered by a high school diploma. And we know that their own individual success boosts their entire community. 

Look at Detroit’s inspiring story. In 2008, Detroit was at the bottom of the educational and economic ladder. It was home to 50% of the country’s lowest-performing high schools and led the nation in unemployment, with rates over 10%. The United Way for Southeastern Michigan sought to solve these issues, bringing together new partners to focus on high school graduation. Together, they launched a $10 million high school dropout prevention initiative, called the United Way Venture Fund, which targeted high schools with 40%+ dropout rates.

What helped Detroit become a success story?

  • Private-sector turnaround strategies and experts were brought into the mix, along with innovation and accountability.
  • Schools were customized to meet the needs of their students, including creating smaller academies within schools and keeping students with same teachers for all four years.
  • Report cards were created for local school boards on student achievement.
  • Statewide policy changes and increased funding (despite economic crisis), brought Teach for America back to Michigan.

Now, five of Detroit’s former “dropout factory” high schools are graduating more than 90% of its students –15 points higher than the national average. The graduation rate has increased due in large part to Detroit’s improvements and the statewide advocacy efforts to support struggling schools. 

But it’s all about the kids, right?  The great work Detroit is doing is best illustrated by this moving video, depicting the personal success of Kymoni Baker.  Kymoni graduated from one of the five high schools mentioned above, with plans to attend culinary school.  

So what about your community? What’s happening with graduation rates where you live? How are you helping to fuel solutions? I’d love to hear about it.


Stacey D. Stewart is the U.S. President of United Way Worldwide. Follow her on Twitter @SDSLivesUnited.