One large Broadway theater.

At roughly 1,500 seats, that’s about how many high school dropouts Tulsa needs to convert to high school graduates to do its part in helping the nation increase its graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

That was the visual cue offered Tuesday in Tulsa at the national summer conference of Diplomas Now by Robert Balfanz, a research scientist from Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Balfanz is a national expert on America’s dropout crisis, chronic absenteeism and the warning signs that show as early as sixth grade which students are likely to drop out of high school. He co-founded Diplomas Now, which is helping tackle the dropout problem by partnering with two schools in Tulsa — Clinton Middle School and Webster High School — and schools in more than a dozen other urban districts across the United States.

Diplomas Now 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.

“We are only as old as the Obama admininistration, so we are just now getting our first graduates,” Balfanz said to a packed banquet room at the Hyatt Regency hotel downtown.

“How many kids that were really off track when you got them in sixth grade were really on track by the time they graduated middle school and went on to high school?” he asked. “This is really hard work and it doesn’t always work, so it’s really important to reflect on the success stories, because that’s what keeps us going.”

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.

“We now have highly engaged teachers and every support in the world available for students,” said Webster Principal Shelly Holman. “Attendance is up, and discipline problems are down. The whole culture of the school has changed.”

Balfanz said the national goal should be a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020. He showed the conference attendees three photos of the Rose Bowl stadium side by side to demonstrate the 310,000 more dropouts who need to be converted to graduates to meet that benchmark.

Then he showed them a 15,000-seat basketball arena, which he said is the number of kids Diplomas Now has already helped “turn from off-track to on-track.”

Balfanz said hallmarks of Diplomas Now’s research-proven approach, the strong focus on chronic absenteeism, as well as tiered intervention systems to ensure that students get the right supports at the right times, seem to be getting traction at the national level.

And he encouraged those doing the work in schools to advocate for policies and funding to support what they know works.

“There is a whole lot of questioning going on about that whole test-based (school) accountability,” he said. “The U.S. Department of Education is now launching major campaigns this year on chronic absenteeism and intervention systems.

“We also have a voice, and we have to use that voice, because if we don’t, people who don’t know what the hell is going on tell us what to do.”

Balfanz said one of the greatest challenges to stemming the tide of high school dropouts, particularly in urban centers, is the doubling of the number of Americans living in intense poverty, which much of that intense poverty concentrated in already distressed and high-poverty neighborhoods.

“Over the last five years, schools have had to meet increased student needs with fewer dollars to spend,” he said. “If we are not advocates for what our kids and our schools need, other people will speak who don’t know the reality. …

“The environment has been really tough, and it has been hard to keep going. Reflect on the injustice of the environment in which you work, because that will keep you mad.”

If you have hope and you’re mad, “you have the will to keep going,” he said.

The Diplomas Now Summer Institute is supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Tulsa Area United Way and the PepsiCo Foundation.

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Andrea Eger 918-581-8470

andrea.eger@tulsaworld.com