How students connecting with trusted adults on campus is raising high school graduation rates
A 13-year high in the state's high school graduation rate is being attributed to a number of factors, but one common element among some suburban schools experiencing success are their efforts to build relationships between students and staff members.
"I believe it has an impact on their performance in school," Wheaton Warrenville South High School Principal Lorie Campos said. "We have amazing staff that put in the time and make sure no student is left behind."
According to 2023 Illinois School Report Card data, the state's 87.6% graduation rate last spring -- up from 87.3% in 2022 -- was driven in part by gains among Black and Hispanic students.
Some suburban schools experienced even greater strides.
Wheaton Warrenville South saw an increase of 21.5% among Black students and 5.7% among Hispanic students, Palatine High saw a 7.9% gain for Black students and 1% for Hispanics, and South Elgin High experienced a 29.3% gain for Black students and 6.8% for Hispanics.
While the pandemic led to widespread learning loss and declines in standardized test scores, that hasn't been the case with graduation rates.
Wheaton Warrenville South's 95.5% graduation rate for Black students is 3.5% higher than 2019 and its 90.8% rate for Hispanic students is only 1% lower. Palatine's Black graduation rate of 97.4% is 29.9% higher than 2019 and its Hispanic graduation rate of 83.2% is 3.4% lower.
South Elgin saw gains in both categories. Its Black graduation rate of 97% is 18.9% higher than the year before the pandemic and its Hispanic rate of 89.2% is 13.2% higher.
"Some students were more highly affected by the pandemic than others," Campos said.
An emphasis on building relationships between students and adults in school is among the approaches shared by the three schools.
"These personal connections are what inspires students to make an effort to finish," Palatine High School Principal Tony Medina said. "They're making a strong connection, knowing that people are here going out of their way to support them."
He pointed out that the school has 600 English learners who often name the teachers of those classes as their trusted adults.
South Elgin High School Principal Kurt Johansen said efforts to build a sense of belonging among the student body have been under way for a few years already. It's seen as a way of keeping students on track academically from the earliest weeks of freshman year and setting up practices and expectations aimed to see them all the way through graduation.
He said he's pleased by evidence of progress, but there's also a natural sense that more improvement is possible.
"It didn't happen overnight, and we're still not where we need to be," Johansen said.
Combating chronic absenteeism and early detection of students who are falling behind are additional elements of the school's community-building efforts, he added.
Campos named absenteeism as the top negative influence on graduation rates. Its causes can be anything from anxiety or depression to substance abuse, and they must be overcome if students are to benefit from the academic recovery programs the school has designed, she said.
"If we have them here, we can help them," she added.
At Palatine High, outreach efforts included 300 home visits during the pandemic-plagued 2020-21 academic year, Medina said. Teachers and counselors found circumstances such as siblings sharing Wi-Fi hot spots for simultaneous remote classes and other problems as reasons behind some students' growing disconnection.
Johansen said there's no approach he'd advocate to everyone as a universal solution.
"It's not a one size fits all," he said. "I tend to focus on what I can control, and that's South Elgin High School."