November 2, 2017

How an app can improve high school graduation rates

Kinvolved is helping to solve America’s dropout crisis by elevating student attendance

Research shows that attendance is a leading indicator of high school graduation. Miriam Altman and Alexandra Meis co-founded Kinvolved to help improve student attendance. Photo by Flickr user dcJohn

Meet Angelique.

Angelique is a student at a high school on the border of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York. This school is not just your typical high school. It is one of the New York City Department of Education’s nearly 50 Transfer Schools, which serve over-aged and under-credited students for whom this is the last chance to earn a high school diploma. Students like Angelique have often surmounted incredible odds, like homelessness, family illness and death, neighborhood violence, and other challenges, that have delayed their progress toward graduation. For these students, Transfer School settings offer an often last chance to earn a high school diploma.

Angelique is a bright student who wanted to graduate from high school, despite the challenges she had encountered along her educational path. Yet, she had real decisions to make, such as whether to take a job to earn money last summer, or to pursue coursework during the summer that would keep her on track toward graduation.

Mr. Grissett, her school’s Attendance Coordinator stepped in to help her make this decision. Noticing that Angelique’s attendance had started to drop off near the end of the term, he pulled her back into the school community through his personal outreach. Mr. Grissett helped Angelique to consider the long-term benefits of earning her diploma, versus the short-term benefits of holding a low-wage job for the summer. Mr. Grissett helped Angelique stay on track, and she is scheduled to graduate in January 2018.

Mr. Grissett’s job is by no means simple. He manages the attendance of more than 275 students like Angelique, each with his or her own story and distinct barriers to school attendance. Every day, Mr. Grissett uses KiNVO, a mobile and web app from Kinvolved, to access informative attendance data and to engage students and families through real-time, two-way, translated, text messaging. It was by reviewing the KiNVO data and receiving text responses from Angelique and her mother, that he was able to uncover her trailing attendance patterns, and to intervene before it was too late.

Kinvolved’s mobile and web app, KiNVO, enables K-12 school staff to access attendance data and to engage families through text messaging. Image courtesy of Kinvolved

But, Mr. Grissett does more than to just use the KiNVO app. Through our Community and Culture Coaching, he has built a strong relationship with my co-founder Alexandra Meis, upon whom he calls regularly to discuss strategic issues, for example, how best to promote school wide KiNVO adoption and the best methods to integrate KiNVO into broader school attendance objectives.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, Mr. Grissett shared his learnings from our partnership with an audience of more than 85 fellow school, district, government and nonprofit staff at our Data Driven Leadership Summit, where he was a featured case study presenter.

Angelique, her classmates, and even the more than 250,000 students in NYC schools who are chronically absent, are not alone. While research reveals that attendance is the leading indicator of high school graduation, more than 15 percent of all U.S. K-12 students, and up to 50 percent of youth in high-poverty, urban communities, are chronically absent. This means that they miss one month or more of school each year. Our chronically absent students have just a 20 percent chance to earn a high school diploma.

Augustus Grissett, an attendance coordinator with the New York City Department of Education, leads a discussion at Kinvolved’s recent Data Driven Leadership Summit. Photo courtesy of Kinvolved

Most of us have heard about the dropout crisis, but few may realize that attendance is the key leading indicator of graduation rates. Dr. Robert Balfanz, key researcher on this topic, has even stated that, “by improving attendance rates alone, without making any additional improvements to the education system, we would drive up academic performance, graduation, and college attainment rates.”

When I emerged from my time as an educator in the New York City Department of Education high school classroom in 2011, I had firsthand knowledge of the depth and complexity of the absenteeism problem. Simultaneously, Alex was coming off a stint building a parent support group for families in the South Bronx. When we met in graduate school at NYU Wagner later that year, we realized that we had witnessed the same problem from different vantage points. Absenteeism was the greatest barrier to my students’ success, and I found that consistent parent engagement was a key solution to this problem. Yet, many parents were incredibly difficult to locate. Alex knew that families wanted to be engaged in their children’s educations, but had limited bandwidth and direction from school, while juggling multiple jobs, in many cases.

We launched Kinvolved to be a solution to this problem, by first offering schools and districts our KiNVO app. Based on an assessment of public attendance data, we learned that attendance among our NYC DOE partner schools increased at a rate 13 times better than the average NYC school. Yet, as we’ve seen the groundswell demand for KiNVO grow from fifteen to 110 schools in NYC alone in the last three years, we knew that technology, alone, would not curb absenteeism at the rate that we and our school partners desired.

So, in 2017, we launched Culture and Community Coaching, the professional development service from which Mr. Grissett has benefitted, and Kinvolved Summits, at which he presented.

This fall, we’ve grown outside of New York City, to districts in more than five states in the east, south, and Midwest.

We continue to be motivated not just by Kinvolved’s growing scale and aggregate impact, but also by the many hundreds of stories of students like Angelique and by the partnerships we continue to develop with school leadership like Mr. Grissett. More than five years into this work, we know that change is not easy, but by facilitating a closer-knit village of educators, administrators, parents, students, government leaders, and neighbors, we will continue to see great improvement. The first step is to work together to get students to school all day, everyday.

Miriam Altman

Co-founder of Kinvolved

A former New York City Department of Education high school history teacher, Miriam Altman is CEO and Co-founder of Kinvolved, a social enterprise that has launched a movement to elevate student attendance. Attendance among Kinvolved partner schools increased 13 times that of their peer schools.

Kinvolved has been featured in press, including the New York Times, and has won awards from The Robin Hood Foundation, Teach For America, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and more. Miriam and her co-founder are winners of the Gratitude Award, Forbes 30 Under 30, and the Jo Ivey Boufford Award for Innovative Solutions to Public Service Challenges by New York University.

Miriam is co-leader of the Attendance Subcommittee for South Bronx Rising Together. She is also a mentor for the Social Innovation Initiative and Women's Launch Pad at Brown University, from which she graduated with a BA with Honors. She also holds an MPA from the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, and an MA, Ed., from Lehman College.