Gateway to College is a college-based high school completion program for young people who have dropped out of high school or who are significantly off track. There are 35 programs and affiliates across the U.S. Historically, alternative high schools and reengagement programs for out-of-school youth have not had clear accountability targets and, as a result, outcomes vary widely—when they are measured at all. In 2015, in order to articulate a shared priority for student success, the Gateway to College network, now part of ATD, adopted network-wide performance benchmarks. The introduction of benchmarks provided Gateway programs a common objective and a means for programs to measure their improvement over time.
Gateway graduates have always matriculated to college at high rates (approximately 75 percent continue postsecondary enrollment each year), but without a larger accountability structure in place, too few students were making it to high school graduation. The benchmarks recognize that while Gateway is a college-based program, it is funded primarily by K-12 agencies and as such, the primary accountability is to ensure students earn a high school diploma. With this accountability in mind, Gateway program directors came together in the spring of 2015 to set an initial target for graduation. As was typical for many alternative high schools and programs serving students who were behind in credits or previously out of school, graduation rates varied significantly, and the average was well below 50 percent. Gateway program directors intentionally set a benchmark that was aspirational, but not so high that it would dis-incentivize programs from serving the students with the greatest needs. The agreed-upon benchmark states that 50 percent of students will complete a high school diploma within three years of their initial enrollment.
Because graduation is a long-term goal, Gateway programs also needed momentum points to measure progress along the way. Additional benchmarks were established to measure first term success, one-year persistence, and two-year persistence. Those benchmarks were backwards-mapped to rates that were predictive of meeting the graduation benchmark. Together, these four benchmarks provide Gateway programs with a snapshot of progress at any time for three distinct cohorts.
Soon after the benchmarks were created, the Gateway network developed a coaching and technical assistance program tied to the adoption of specific practices known to impact program performance. And, at the same time, we introduced two awards to be issued annually. The Program Excellence Award is presented to programs that meet all four benchmarks, while the Graduation Achievement Award is presented to programs that meet the graduation benchmark. The awards serve as an opportunity to celebrate the success of individual programs and the collective progress of the network. Our goal is that one day, every program will receive these awards.
After the first year of benchmark implementation, only three programs met all four benchmarks and three additional programs met the graduation benchmark. These numbers represented just over 15 percent of all Gateway to College programs, and they served as a reminder that there was much more work to be done to ensure more vulnerable young people graduated high school on a pathway to postsecondary success.
The intervening three years saw a substantial investment in coaching, the expansion of effective practices, and a disciplined focus on data to identify students in need of additional support. The network’s collective graduation rate has increased by more than 20 percentage points in three years and the average is now above the benchmark. The Gateway to College Directors in attendance at last week’s convening recognized and celebrated the significant improvements over just three years.
Through the combined use of benchmarks, coaching, data analysis, and recognition of success, the Gateway to College network shows that accountability coupled with support and data-informed practice can change outcomes and lead to strong results for the most vulnerable students.
The success of the past few years have allowed the Gateway to College program to explore additional benchmarks to push students to further success. Now that momentum is building on high school graduation, at last week’s convening, discussions focused on adding a Postsecondary Success benchmark. This acknowledges that a high school diploma cannot be a terminal credential and further strengthens the connection to the broader work of Achieving the Dream.