A leader of an organization helping to drive the nation’s higher-than-ever high school graduation rate said Tulsa could be the first midsize city to graduate 90 percent of its students.

Charles Hiteshew, CEO of Talent Development Secondary, the lead partner of Diplomas Now, spoke Friday at the GradNation Community Summit hosted by ImpactTulsa.

Hiteshew, who has extensive career experience in trying to reform schools and in student support services, said Tulsa simply needs to strive to convert 540 students from dropouts to graduates by 2020.

That figure represents 75 percent of annual dropouts from the high schools disproportionately contributing to the city’s dropout rate.

He recommends adopting whole-school reform models, such as the one Diplomas Now is employing in the Webster High School feeder pattern.

It isn’t a program; it’s a whole-school approach that involves working with administrators and teachers to improve curriculum and instruction while identifying and targeting at-risk students with a variety of supports to keep them in school and on track toward graduation.

Over the past two years, Diplomas Now has helped 73 percent of seventh- through 12th-graders at Clinton Middle School and Webster High School stay on track for graduation.

Hiteshew worked previously as a top-ranking administrator at America’s Promise Alliance. There, he helped design and launch the GradNation campaign in 2010. Its goal is to reach a 90 percent nationwide graduation rate by 2020, with no high school graduating fewer than 80 percent of its students on time.

ImpactTulsa — a new organization bringing together area educators with the businesses and philanthropic, nonprofit, civic and faith groups committed to supporting them — has made improving high school graduation rates one of its primary missions.

The organization has been examining student data in new ways to help focus efforts and increase collaboration to achieve incremental goals.

ImpactTulsa’s latest data report found graduation rates in traditional high schools in the Tulsa area vary widely between 44 percent and 99 percent.

Kathy Taylor, former Tulsa mayor and current CEO of ImpactTulsa, said three factors have her convinced that Tulsa “has the courage” to significantly improve its graduation rates.

She cited city councilors taking up the issue of affordable housing for teachers, plus city and state programs called Oklahoma’s Promise and Tulsa Achieves that offer financial assistance to college for qualifying students.

Taylor said one of ImpactTulsa’s short-term goals is to improve by 10 percent the 53 percent of area students who currently complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, forms that are required to receive any form of financial aid to a post-secondary institution.

“We believe we’re leaving at least $15 million in federal assistance on the table,” Taylor said.

Mike Cooper, regional director of external affairs for AT&T in Oklahoma, spoke about his corporation’s $350 million commitment to increasing graduation rates.

“When we invest in education, we are making our communities stronger, safer and more economically viable,” Cooper said.

Cooper recalled that during his tenure as Enid mayor, he attended an event in December 1997 where Colin Powell, founder of America’s Promise Alliance, challenged the nation’s mayors and city councilors to help tackle the issue.

He said Powell employed the little red wagon as a symbol of childhood, saying, “It can either be full of hopes and dreams or weighed down with their burdens — all of them need help pulling it along.”

Andrea Eger 918-581-8470

andrea.eger@tulsaworld.com

Staff Writer

Andrea is a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, she has been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470