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New Study: Diplomas Now Increases Percentage of Students without Early-Warning Signs, Boosting Odds of High School Graduation in Nation’s Most Challenged Urban Schools


Building On All It Has Learned, Diplomas Now Plans to Use New Evidence to Support More High-Poverty Schools and Their Most Vulnerable Students


June 21, 2016 – Diplomas Now, a model designed to improve the nation’s most challenged middle and high schools and the outcomes of their most vulnerable students, increases the percentage of sixth- and ninth-graders with no early-warning signs in attendance, behavior, and course performance, according to a major new study released today. 

This finding is important because prior research shows that sixth- and ninth-graders without early warning indicators graduate at rates two to three times higher than students with such issues. Prior research shows that graduation rates for sixth-graders with just one early warning sign can be as low as 25 percent. Students with no early warning signs attend school more than 85 percent of the time, were suspended less than three days, and are passing English and math.

“One of the best moves high-poverty secondary schools can make to dramatically change their students’ life trajectories is to help them get through school without any early warning signs,” said Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and co-founder of Diplomas Now. “It moves kids from a path of dropping out toward one of graduating from high school. These exciting findings show that even in the nation’s toughest secondary schools, Diplomas Now was able to help schools do that.” 

In 2010, Diplomas Now won a $30 million federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to implement the model in 11 school districts and validate its effectiveness. The PepsiCo Foundation provided $11 million in private matching funds to support the implementation of Diplomas Now in the study schools. The 11 districts are in Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, Washington, D.C., East Baton Rouge, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Antonio. MDRC, an independent research organization, is conducting the study, which, when completed in 2019, will be one of the largest and longest randomized studies of secondary school reform ever conducted.

The ambitious study involved some 40,000 low-income students in 62 of the nation’s most challenged middle and high schools. Thirty-two schools were randomly assigned to implement Diplomas Now, and 30 implemented other reforms, allowing researchers to compare the two groups of schools. The findings released today look at Diplomas Now’s impact on reducing early warning indicators after students experienced the first year of a multi-year intervention starting in the sixth and ninth grades. The study looks at overall outcomes, not results for individual schools or districts.

“After two years, implementation of the Diplomas Now secondary school reform model produced a statistically significant, positive impact on the percentage of students with no early warning indicators,” the MDRC report says. “The focus of the Diplomas Now model, particularly with its early warning system and tiered support, is to reduce the percentage of students with early warning indicators, and this finding suggests those efforts are starting to make a difference after two years.”

Diplomas Now also achieved statistically significant impact in increasing the percentage of students who have better than 90 percent attendance in sixth grade – meaning it reduces chronic absenteeism – as well as the percentage of sixth graders without any early warning indicators. 

The positive impact on reducing chronic absenteeism in the sixth grade is particularly relevant as Diplomas Now has served as one model for the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Student Success Mentor Initiative now involving 30 school districts across the nation.

Although Diplomas Now schools saw overall improvement in attendance and course passing and declines in suspensions, the comparison schools, many of which were also pursuing ambitious reforms, also improved. As a result, there was not a statistically significant difference between Diplomas Now and the comparison schools on these grade-level outcomes on average.

The study also revealed several areas for improvement, including further reducing suspensions and enhancing the model’s approach to meet the size and intensity of student need in large, highly challenged high schools. During the third year of implementation, the Diplomas Now team worked with many of its schools to implement a restorative approach to student discipline, which empowers students to resolve conflicts. The impact of this effort will be examined in future studies.

Diplomas Now began in 2008 as a pilot project with one middle school in Philadelphia. Today, it operates in 32 schools in 14 cities across the country. Diplomas Now schools use an early-warning system to identify students who are off track in attendance, behavior, and course performance. Teachers and Diplomas Now staff meet regularly to identify students struggling in those areas and then devise individualized plans to get each student back on track, as well as identify strategic ways to improve attendance, behavior, and course performance overall. To achieve this, Diplomas Now combines the efforts of three leading national nonprofits: Talent Development Secondary at Johns Hopkins University, City Year, and Communities In Schools. Together, those organizations bring a team of adults to schools to partner with teachers, administrators and students.

Talent Development Secondary works with schools to reorganize the schedule to provide more time for English and math, creates teams of teachers who share a common group of students and works alongside teachers to build capacity and provide best practices in curriculum and instruction. City Year’s near-peer AmeriCorps members provide individualized whole-class and whole-school academic and social emotional support. Communities In Schools provides targeted supports for students with the greatest needs that often keep them from focusing on school, such as housing, food, clothing, and health issues.

“Businesses have a vested interest in developing the workforce of tomorrow, and the world needs more partnerships like the one we have with Diplomas Now to provide students the support they need to finish high school prepared for the workforce,” said Cynthia Trudell, executive vice president of human resources and chief human resources officer at PepsiCo, Inc., which has contributed a total of $16 million to Diplomas Now. “The students of today are the ones we’ll soon be hiring. Thanks to Diplomas Now, which serves 26,000 students in 14 of our largest cities, many more of them are on the road to success.”

Diplomas Now recruited the 32 implementing schools in the i3 study in two groups, and those schools began implementing the model in fall 2011 or fall 2012. Since the study began, Diplomas Now has supported about 8,000 ninth-graders through all four years of high school. Ten of the 13 high schools in the study are graduating their first classes of seniors this year and the other three graduated their first classes last year. Since the study began, Diplomas Now also has supported about 5,000 sixth-graders through eighth-grade.

“These results are a testament to the commitment of the school and district leaders, teachers, and most of all the students,” said City Year President Jim Balfanz. “These types of evidence-based collaborative partnerships, driven by continuous learning, lead to better outcomes for students.”

“The targeted supports that Communities In Schools delivers to these students, in collaboration with our Diplomas Now partners, are critical given that more students live in poverty and are coming to school hungry, homeless, needing basic medical care, or lacking a caring adult in their lives,” said Gary Chapman, executive vice president of Communities In Schools Network Impact and Operations. “This study reaffirms that evidence-based programs can make a meaningful difference in our ability to address their warning signs and keep them in school and on a path to graduation.” 

The two prior MDRC reports note that Diplomas Now schools were implementing different structures and practices than the comparison schools, including creating small learning communities within large schools, providing more opportunities for teacher collaboration, using data to identify students’ needs and then based on the data, offering additional support to struggling students. 

Ultimately, through its multi-year school and student support model, Diplomas Now intends to help better prepare middle school students for high school and help high school students make it to graduation. MDRC will analyze the impact of Diplomas Now on these high school transition and graduation outcomes, and plans to issue a final report in 2019 that will examine whether Diplomas Now has an impact.

Diplomas Now plans to use the “strong evidence” from this study to expand to more schools and students as the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires states and districts to use evidence-based reforms to improve high schools with low graduation rates and low-performing middle schools in order to qualify for federal school improvement Title I funding. The law defines “strong evidence” as at least one randomized control trial with positive, statistically significant impact on student outcomes. Diplomas Now also plans to apply for a significant i3 grant to help more struggling children. 

In addition to the U.S. Department of Education and the PepsiCo Foundation, Diplomas Now also has received significant funding from other private funders, including AT&T, the Ballmer Philanthropy Group, Deloitte, Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, the Kenan Family Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the Schusterman Family Foundation. 

For an overview and full report of the i3 study, please visit or  


Diplomas Now is a proven approach that helps the toughest middle and high schools in America’s largest cities ensure every student graduates ready for college or career. It is the first fully integrated approach that improves a school’s curriculum and instruction as it provides the right students with the right support to accomplish the right results.


City Year is dedicated to helping students and schools succeed. Diverse teams of City Year AmeriCorps members provide high-impact student, classroom and school-wide supports to help students stay in school and on track to graduate from high school, ready for college and career success. A recent third party study shows that schools that partner with City Year were up to 2-3 times more likely to improve on Math and English assessments. A proud member of the AmeriCorps national service network, City Year is funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, local school districts, and private philanthropy from corporations, foundations and individuals. Learn more at, City Year’s Facebook page, and on Twitter.


 Communities In Schools surrounds students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. Through a school-based coordinator, Communities In Schools connects students and their families to critical community resources, tailored to local needs. Communities In Schools has become the nation’s leading dropout prevention organization, and the only one proven to both decrease dropout rates and increase graduation rates.

 Talent Development Secondary is an evidence-based, customizable school improvement model, developed at Johns Hopkins University, to improve a school’s environment and student achievement. The model brings education experts into some of America’s most-challenged schools to work alongside their current staffs to guide them in best practices, and uses an early warning indicator system to identify struggling students and get them back on track to graduation. Its middle and high school programs specialize in organizational, instructional and teacher support reforms designed to make the whole school more effective.

 Established in 1962, the PepsiCo Foundation is the philanthropic anchor of PepsiCo, Inc., responsible for providing charitable contributions to eligible non-profit organizations. The PepsiCo Foundation is committed to developing sustainable partnerships and programs in underserved regions that provide opportunities for improved health, environment and education. For more information, visit:  


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