GradNation Action Platform

Accelerating Progress to 90 Percent

America’s Promise could not be more proud of the progress made toward raising graduation rates over the last several years. The data shows us that to accelerate progress to a national high school graduation rate of 90 percent, we must meet the needs of young people whose lives feature the greatest complexity and we must employ diverse systems and supports. 

GradNation Action Platform

Over the past decade, the nation has made notable progress in improving the high school experience and raising graduation rates across the country. Despite this progress, however, the national goal of reaching a 90 percent four-year graduation rate has not been met and deep inequities remain.

Addressing these inequities and continuing the progress requires leaders to learn from state and community practitioners from across the country who are committed to creating equitable, youth-centered high school experiences that prioritize young people’s learning and wellbeing. High schools, alone, cannot correct all of society’s deeply entrenched inequities that impact student learning. However, high schools and their community partners can identify and respond to many of the systemic barriers that affect young people, helping them progress toward the graduation milestone and achieve their post-graduation goals. Our goal is for this resource to be a helpful aid to high school leaders, educators, and all who work to support high school students to and through graduation.

We have revised the language of the GradNation Action Platform to reflect the latest evidence and insights about the high school experience. We have also updated the resources to support high schools and their partners in meeting students’ needs in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dramatically altered the high school experience for all young people while exacerbating existing inequities. The GradNation Action Platform continues to reflect the areas that schools and their community partners prioritize in pursuit of improving graduation rates based on the insights of practitioners, young people, and our own and others’ research.

What do we mean by ‘wellbeing’?​​​​​​

Young people’s wellbeing encompasses their physical and mental health, their social and emotional development, and the supportive relationships in their lives. When young people experience an array of supports that strengthen their sense of belonging and purpose, community connection, and ability to fully realize their assets and skills, they are well positioned to pursue experiences and futures that help them thrive.   



In 2018, America’s Promise partnered with three community and two state initiatives to improve graduation rates for specific populations of young people. Each organization was selected based on its alignment with two or more aspects of the GradNation Action Platform. Explore lessons learned about how these strategies work together from communities in the Acceleration Initiative.

GradNation Action Platform Areas

  • Prioritize Caring Adult Relationships 

    Center relationships as the foundation for student learning and wellbeing.   

    During adolescence, relationships with both adults and peers are critically important as young people develop a stronger sense of their own identities, interests, beliefs, and long-term goals. In particular, caring relationships with adults promote positive academic, behavioral, and psychological development and provide important social support needed to persist through school. A web of caring adults can include teachers, parents, family members, caregivers, school counselors, school staff, social workers, youth workers, national service members, volunteers, coaches, and other adult mentors.  


    • Various types of support play specific roles in a young person’s development, but emotional support (love and care) and instrumental support (actions like providing a bus pass, a meal, a ride, or childcare) acting in tandem are most likely to increase the number of students graduating without interruption.  

    • Research shows that recruiting and training caring adults from diverse backgrounds leads to better outcomes for students of color.  

    • High-quality professional support, including supportive work environments, help to provide teachers and other caring adults the capacity they need to support student development.  

    • Partnering with direct service providers such as AmeriCorps leverages outside resources to bring more caring adults into schools.  

    • Schools and community partners can engage parents and families by increasing the agency of families to support their student’s learning and treating them as partners in implementing a whole-child approach.  



    Relationships during the pandemic are taking on new meaning. Students are experiencing collective trauma and are relying on caring adults to support them through this challenging time.   

    • Parents and families, in addition to school-based staff, are rethinking how they build relationships. American Institutes for Research suggests strategies for families and caregivers to create positive conditions for learning at home.   

    • MENTOR’s guide, Supporting Youth in the Wake of Trauma, can be particularly useful while many young people are reporting experiencing individual and collective trauma.   

    • Recent studies have shown high rates of stress, burnout, and transition among teachers across the nation, creating a recognition that for young people to have access to diverse, well-prepared, and healthy adults, the adults must be fully supported so they can support students.  

    • Education Week shares insights into building relationships with students during a pandemic, taking into account the particular challenges that come with navigating relationships in a virtual or hybrid environment.   

  • Meet the Comprehensive Needs of Young People 

    Identify and address the array of factors that influence a young person’s ability to participate and perform well in school.  

    Addressing holistic needs requires an understanding of the systemic barriers students face and the ways in which their identities and individual experiences outside of school can affect how they show up in the classroom. Ultimately, factors like food insecurity, economic hardship, or experiencing personal or family health challenges can influence their wellbeing and, ultimately, their likelihood of reaching the graduation milestone.   


    • Students are more likely to be engaged in their learning and are less likely to leave before graduating when schools and community partners provide wraparound services with academic and mental health support to mitigate the effects of trauma and adverse experiences.  

    • GradNation’s own case study, Holistic Approaches to Helping Young People Succeed, provides context about how five state and community organizations across the country addressed youth needs through counseling, family supports, health and wellness programming, and other efforts. 

    • Connectivity across communities allows for systemic approaches to supporting youth. This brief explores how national and local partnerships can come together and support efforts that keep youth in high school by meeting their comprehensive mental and physical health needs.  

    • A resource from the Center for Promise at America’s Promise Alliance demonstrates how youth-supporting professionals, community leaders, and policymakers are infusing principles of trauma-informed practice into program design, implementation, and policy proposals. 



    COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of out-of-school factors and how they affect not only student learning, but student wellbeing. Basic needs like food security, housing, and internet access influence a young person’s ability to connect to and engage with remote classes and other elements of the school experience. 

    Research reported in The State of Young People during COVID showed that students are facing collective trauma and would immensely benefit from ongoing support within and outside of the classroom.  

  • Cultivate a Healthy, Inclusive School Environment

    Promote inclusion and belonging among students and school staff by fostering a relationship-rich school environment in which students can learn and grow from both successes and mistakes.  

    A school environment that is safe, supportive, and inclusive is essential for the success of everyone in the school community. The most effective learning environments are those that facilitate strong, bidirectional adult-youth relationships; include a diverse and student-centered curriculum and pedagogy; and provide structures and practices–particularly within school discipline–that invite everyone to learn and grow from their successes and mistakes. To support schools in creating these kinds of environments, school leaders can reflect on the ways school structures and practices affirm young people’s multiple evolving identities, allow for students to express their agency, ground learning in the topics that affect young people’s lives, and prioritize adult learning alongside that of students.



    • GradNation partnered with City Year to shed light into strategies and practices that help City Year members build relationships and improve the climate and culture of their partner schools. Our joint webinar resources combine the research about relationships with real-world strategies. 

    • Research from the Learning Policy Institute explores opportunities for schools and districts to accurately measure, and then improve, school climate.  

    • This guide from GLSEN provides steps for schools to build safe spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, along with resources to help students become allies to LGBT peers. 

    • The School Climate Guide for District Policymakers and Education highlights promising practices in specific districts that are using the National School Climate Standards and provides a framework that state decision makers can follow to utilize school climate measures. 


    During the pandemic, it has become more difficult—and even more important—to create a culture and climate in which all students belong. Wellbeing has been prioritized during a traumatic time for both educators and students, and along with it, learning environments have continually been altered and adapted. These new environments—whether virtual, hybrid, or in-person—require changes to traditional approaches to teaching, learning, building relationships, and discipline.   

    • An Arizona school district does daily wellness checks for every student in their school in order to find supportive strategies that are relevant to the trauma students are facing.  

    • The National School Climate Center’s best practices for implementing strategies of engagement during COVID-19 provide ideas for building a sense of connection during remote learning.  

    • Young people consistently indicate a desire to have meaningful conversations about important topics that are affecting their learning and lives: from mental health, to addressing racism, to communicating across ideological divides. A new Youth Discussion Guide from America’s Promise provides sample questions and conversation structures for engaging with young people about these important and timely topics.  

  • Construct Pathways to a Variety of Postsecondary Pursuits 

    Create opportunities during the high school experience that help young people understand the various pathways they can follow to reach their future goals. 

    Educators around the country are working to create meaningful pathways that lead young people to pursue fulfilling and dignified career opportunities after they complete high school. These postsecondary pursuits may include a two-year or four-year college, trade school, apprenticeships, starting a career, or national service. Public-private partnerships that provide internship, apprenticeship, mentorship, or project-based learning opportunities provide young people with opportunities to experiment in high school with aspects of what life will offer outside of the K-12 system.  


    • There are hundreds of thousands of secondary and postsecondary credentials that young people can earn to support their career journeys. Pathways planning should show the many possibilities that young people have when they complete high school.   



    Amidst national and local conversations about how best to facilitate learning during COVID-19, the country faces a significant economic challenge. Employment rates have declined as many businesses were forced to change operations or close entirely due to the pandemic. This reality has important implications for pathways planning and programming. 

    • The traditional pathways to future careers are in a state of flux, and college enrollment rates are declining, along with postsecondary completion rates, as young people attempt to determine their next steps. Applications for student aid have also declined during the pandemic.  

    • Students need tactical strategies to plan for their futures—from financial aid application coaching to essay revision—but also encouragement and support to show that their futures are full of possibilities.   

    • For more holistic transition planning during an extremely unusual time, students express needing  support from many different caring adults, especially to handle the feelings of being overwhelmed and underprepared.   

    • College counselors and caring adults who support pathways planning have been using virtual advising sessions to think more creatively about how to support and discuss the future with young people during this tumultuous time.   

  • Use Data to Transform Learning Environments

    Pursue high-quality data that allow policymakers, educators, parents, and students to understand critical information about young people’s learning, academic progress, and wellbeing.   

    What data are collected, by whom, and how they are used affect the extent to which that data supports the learning and growth of each and every young person. When data gathering is driven by thoughtful and timely questions, systematic methods of collection, and used in transparent ways to continuously support young people, it can be a powerful tool for driving educational equity and student learning. In recent years there has been a growing recognition that traditional indicators of student progress, such as attendance and test scores, are important but insufficient metrics. In response, states, districts, and individual schools are asking additional questions, gathering targeted information on a much broader range of student- and school-level indicators, and engaging in continuous improvement inquiry cycles alongside students. Additionally, a growing research landscape has highlighted critical areas for intervention that get closer to the root causes for inequities and reflect all aspects of learning.  


    • Schools can diversify assessments and use a student-centered approach to better capture and understand learning throughout the year. Some communities have instituted new practices like student-led conferences or portfolio-based assessments as demonstrations of student learning and growth.  

    • Districts with effective data management often use data as a tool for continuous learning. For educators, this may include engaging in continuous improvement inquiry cycles, whereas for students, mastery-based grading allows for additional learning through recursive reflection and revision.   

    • NERD$, a project of Georgetown University, tracks state, district, and school level per-pupil expenditures data as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. This information can shine a light on funding disparities and help make the case for different educational funding approaches that remedy systemic and historical inequities.  


    • UCLA’s Civil Rights Project Data Collection highlights discipline disproportionalities to help drive reforms aimed at creating more equitable disciplinary practices.   

    • An emerging body of strategies demonstrates how to capture more holistic measures of young people’s school experiences and learning. The diverse assessments used across the CORE districts in California, and the Cultivate and 5Essentials survey from the University of Chicago Consortium on Schools can be applied in other communities.  


    While COVID-19 has disrupted or halted many data-gathering mechanisms, what questions are asked about students’ high school experience and how that information is used will determine our ability to support young people and our school system in the years to come.   

    • The Data Quality Campaign has several resources encouraging school leaders to leverage data to promote transparency and support students through report cards and other data collection opportunities during COVID-19.  

    • Attendance and engagement data during the pandemic are crucial to understanding the situation and potential needs of each student. However, there is not an established standard for tracking attendance in the current environment. Attendance Works analyzed all 50 states' attendance polices

    • A recent resource from Attendance Works provides recommendations for using chronic absence data to provide strategic and targeted support to students and families.  

    • As education budgets stretch to meet the demands of learning recovery, leaders should consider communicating their budget data and needs to bring transparency during a time of transition, particularly as federal funds reach districts and schools.  

  • Provide Multiple On-Ramps for Re-Engagement 

    Re-engage young people who have left school by providing accessible and effective options for re-enrolling and completing high school prepared for success in college and/or career.  

    Research shows that the reasons students leave school or are pushed out of the traditional school system are multifaceted, and in order address them a tiered system of intervention is needed. Some factors that affect a student’s decision to leave school include, but are not limited to: uncontrollable life events that happen outside of school, disconnections between academics and work, a lack of emotional and tangible supports, and structures and policies that serve to push students out of school like exclusionary discipline, unhealthy school climate, and attendance policies that do not reflect the demands of young people’s lives. 


    • America’s Promise Alliance’s seminal report, Don't Call Them Dropouts, offers a perspective on why young people leave without diplomas and what kinds of resources they need in order to re-enroll and return.  

    • Re-engagement can be supported through partnerships with alternative schools. Some promising practices from alternative schools shed insight about the types of support services and credit recovery programs that can help meet student need.  


    • This white paper from the Center for Promise shares strategies for schools and communities to work together to identify and bring young people back to school. When they return, young people need educational programs and support that account for a range of life contexts. (For example: evening programs for young people earning income for their families or caring for a family member.) 

    • The US Department of Education developed a resource guide for communities that want to implement or enhance their re-engagement centers.  City governments can work with schools to establish re-engagement centers, which connect out-of-school youth with the resources they need to re-enroll and return to school. 


    During the COVID-19 pandemic, more students than usual are leaving school without graduating due to the immense economic and health challenges brought about by the pandemic. Around the country, school, district, and community leaders have been implementing strategies to re-engage students who have been identified as “missing” or “non-contactable” during this time.  

    • Brookings noted that teen disengagement is on the rise. It will require significant effort to help students re-enroll in school.   

    • Young people and practitioners across the United States gathered virtually to discuss how re-engagement looks and feels during COVID-19. They share that relationship-rich environments are the key to re-enrollment, whether students are online, in-person, or in a hybrid model of learning.  

    • District leaders are taking a more active approach to finding students who have been disconnected over the last year. In California, school leaders are driving to students’ homes to physically check in, confirm up-to-date addresses, and understand what students need. Teachers in Texas are following a similar model.   

    • Afterschool Alliance’s blueprint for how afterschool programs and community partners can come together provides ideas for supporting re-engagement and continuous learning. 

    • The National League of Cities explores how municipal leadership can spur collective action for communities to build robust re-engagement supports during the pandemic.  



GradNation Acceleration Grant

With generous support from AT&T, America’s Promise will invest in two states and three communities to support more young people toward the critical milestone of high school graduation.

The application period closed on November 8, 2017

Throwing Hats

Updated 4/29/2021