High school equivalency diplomas: Racine, WI
- Helping students attend school and earn a secondary credential: Students with high levels of absenteeism have lower academic performance and educational attainment. Those who do not complete high school or earn an equivalent credential face increased risk for a range of negative economic and health outcomes. Approaches to increase student attendance and persistence include dropout prevention programs, attendance and truancy interventions, mentoring programs, and alternative high schools. For adults and older adolescents that are disconnected from a traditional high school, alternative secondary credential programs may be appropriate.
- Targeting the drivers of poor attendance: Attendance and truancy programs work to remove barriers students face to regular school attendance. Typically, programs offer a range of support services to address common causes of poor attendance, such as health problems, family issues, or academic challenges. In addition, some schools examine internal policies that promote absences, like out-of-school suspensions, to find alternatives that keep students in school. While many programs are school-based, those focused on students involved in truancy cases may be run by court systems.
- Boosting student persistence: Dropout prevention programs aim to keep students in school by increasing school engagement, school attachment, and academic performance. Common approaches include reducing class sizes, offering tutoring, and starting mentoring programs. To further support students, many programs offer more intensive support services, like case management and vocational training. Programs can be school- or community-based, and they can serve entire schools or target specific groups at high risk of dropping out, like students that are pregnant.
- Offering alternative models of high school: Alternative high school programs aim to help students at risk of not completing high school earn a secondary credential. Programs vary considerably in form and intensity, with some being delivered in traditional school environments and others using separate facilities. Similarly, some programs focus on a narrow range of interventions, like mentoring, while others offer more comprehensive services, from counseling and tutoring to career education.
- Helping individuals complete their secondary education: General Education Development (GED) and High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) programs help individuals without a high school diploma earn an equivalent credential. Credentials are awarded to students who pass a series of exams meant to test knowledge of high school subjects, like math, reading, and science. To increase students’ chance of success, programs typically offer academic supports, such as prep courses or tutoring. Some programs supplement academic supports with counseling or social services.
- Matching students with mentors: Volunteer mentoring programs, like Big Brothers Big Sisters, recruit community members to serve as mentors to area youth. Typically, programs primarily focus on building supportive relationships between youth and their mentors. Program design varies, with both community- and school-based programs being common.
Strategies to improve attendance, strengthen school persistence, and create alternative paths to graduation are supported by multiple rigorous studies with positive results.
A 2017 research synthesis found that attendance interventions for chronically absent students were a scientifically supported approach to improving student attendance.
A 2016 research synthesis found that dropout prevention programs are a scientifically supported approach to increasing high school completion.
A 2016 research synthesis found that dropout prevention programs for teen mothers are a scientifically supported approach to increasing high school completion.
A 2016 research synthesis found that alternative high schools for at-risk students are a scientifically supported strategy for increasing high school completion.
A 2022 research synthesis found some evidence that high school equivalency credential programs increase earnings and reduce recidivism.
A 2016 research synthesis found some evidence that Big Brothers Big Sisters reduces delinquent behavior and increases academic achievement.
Results and accomplishments
Since launching in Racine in 2017, 408 individuals have graduated from the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin’s high school equivalency diploma (HSED) program.
The YWCA high school equivalency diploma (HSED) program in Racine has graduated 78 percent of its students, putting them on a pathway to higher quality employment and post-secondary education.
80 percent of YWCA HSED students in Racine earn workforce readiness certificates, equipping them for higher quality job opportunities and better earnings.
- High engagement and completion rates: Since launching in Racine in Fall 2017, roughly 80 percent of students in the YWCA High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) program have graduated and earned workforce readiness certificates. Over 400 students have successfully completed the program, positioning themselves for significantly higher quality employment.
- Selected for inaugural What Works Cities Economic Mobility Cohort: The City of Racine was chosen for Results for America’s What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative and focused their additional capacity on expanding the YWCA SEW HSED program. As a member of the cohort, the city received development, technical, and evaluation support in addition to flexible funding and access to a network of peer professionals in cities across the country.
- Successful partnership with Racine Unified School District: The program first expanded to provide young adults without a high school diploma with the opportunity to earn a high school diploma from RUSD. After demonstrating success with these students, RUSD leased the HSED curriculum for its Competency Based Credit Recovery Program (CBCRP), which helps current students who are severely credit deficient recover credits and graduate with their class. During the 2021-2022 school year, 17 percent of RUSD's graduates (144 students) participated in the CBCRP.
- Smooth transition to virtual instruction during COVID-19: With grant and partnership support from the City of Racine and Higher Expectations of Racine County, the HSED program was able to continue serving students remotely during COVID-19 pandemic. Wisconsin’s FoodShare and Employment Training program provided students with stipends for phone and internet access so that they could participate in virtual learning, and the United Way of Racine County, Wisconsin Literacy, and Associated Bank provided funding for laptops for students.
In 2018, 15.6 percent of adults in Racine (WI) did not have a high school diploma or equivalent degree, almost double the state average. Since the passing standards for the nationally-recognized General Education Development (GED) test were raised in 2014, significantly fewer individuals passed the exam. Adults without a high school degree were left with limited opportunity to earn a secondary credential and access higher quality employment.
Recognizing the need for an alternative to the GED, the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin (SEW) began offering a new high school equivalency degree program (HSED) in Racine in 2017. The HSED program featured a cohort-based learning model; an applied, practical curriculum; and a range of student supports. With support from Results for America’s What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative, Racine Mayor Cory Mason’s administration convened YWCA SEW, Gateway Technical College, Higher Expectations, and the Racine Unified School District in 2019 to expand the HSED program to serve more students.
Keys to the program’s success included a commitment from City Hall to convene key players and identify resources for the program; sustained effort by Higher Expectations to facilitate collaboration between the stakeholders; a program model centered on small student cohorts and applied learning; and a commitment to providing students with wraparound supports to reduce barriers to completion.
Obstacles faced by the program included difficulty building trust and coordinating cost-sharing agreements between stakeholders, challenges engaging and recruiting prospective students, and barriers transitioning to virtual instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What was the challenge?
- High unemployment rates: For decades, the City of Racine has experienced some of the highest unemployment rates in Wisconsin. Estimates showed a citywide unemployment rate of 5 percent in 2017, 1.7 percentage points higher than the statewide rate.
- Significant portion of the workforce in need of credentials: In 2018, ten-year projections estimated that by 2028, only 30 percent of job openings across the state of Wisconsin would be available to applicants without a high school diploma or an equivalent credential. At that time, 15.6 percent of Racine’s adult residents did not have a high school diploma or its equivalent, nearly double the state average of 8 percent.
- National credentialing upheaval: In 2014, the General Education Development (GED) test, which grants a nationally recognized high school credential, raised its passing standards, resulting in a 90-percent reduction in individuals acquiring a GED the year after changes were implemented.
- GED change leaves residents without recourse: The GED change left many adult learners across the country in need of new high school equivalency paths and resources. In Racine, few test takers were successfully passing the test, and enrollment in local GED preparation programs declined. Adults without high school diplomas had few opportunities to receive credentials that would allow them to access higher quality employment.
What was the solution?
- A more effective HSED program: Recognizing the need for an alternative to the GED, the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin (SEW) developed a new high school equivalency degree program (HSED) that featured a cohort-based learning model, an applied, practical curriculum, and a range of student supports. The program first launched in Milwaukee in 2015, and after two years of successful outcomes, it expanded to Racine.
- Supportive learning environment and practical instruction: Students in the HSED program participate as part of a small learning cohort of 15-20 individuals, significantly smaller than the average class size in local high schools. Students are encouraged to support each other and keep each other accountable. Instruction focuses on applied skills and practical demonstrations of knowledge, rather than relying on standardized tests.
- Partnership with City of Racine enables expansion: In 2019, the City of Racine was selected to participate in Results for America’s What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative, which provided significant funding and technical assistance to the city. At that time, the YWCA HSED program had generated strong results but was serving only a small number of participants. The City of Racine used the additional capacity from What Works Cities to significantly expand the HSED program and serve larger numbers of adults without a high school diploma.
- Continued success leads to partnership with School District: Leaders in City Hall and their partners helped forge an agreement between the YWCA and the Racine Unified School District (RUSD) which allowed former students aged 18-21 who had not graduated to earn a full RUSD high school diploma through the HSED program. Following the success of that collaboration, RUSD launched the Competency Based Credit Recovery Program (CBCRP) for the 2021-2022 school year. CBCRP uses the YWCA SEW curriculum to help current students who are severely credit deficient get back on track and graduate from high school on time.
What factors drove success?
- Leadership, resources, and convening power from City Hall: Racine Mayor Cory Mason, elected in 2017 on a platform focused on strengthening Racine's middle class, was a vocal champion for YWCA SEW’s HSED program. He and his administration chose to use the resources from the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative to significantly expand the HSED program and spent hundreds of hours convening the many partners involved in the program’s execution. City Hall was particularly instrumental in forging the partnership between YWCA SEW and RUSD.
- Dedicated coordination capacity: The success and expansion of YWCA SEW’s program relied on significant cross-sector collaboration. Higher Expectations for Racine County, in partnership with the City of Racine, played a centralized coordinating role, facilitating communication, trust-building, legal agreements, and cost-sharing across the YWCA, Gateway Technical College, RUSD, and Racine County.
- Structured to build accountability and engagement: In the YWCA SEW program, students complete the program as a 15-20 student cohort (significantly smaller than the average high school class size) and coursework is focused on applied, practical skills. Both of these factors help keep students accountable and engaged, thereby improving completion and achievement outcomes.
- Supportive program design: YWCA SEW’s program offers a number of wraparound supports to students in order to reduce barriers to completion, including access to childcare, transportation, and job training opportunities. Program units are modular, allowing students to pause coursework if necessary. This flexibility contributes to higher completion and graduation rates.
What were the major obstacles?
- Slow program growth: Across iterations of YWCA SEW’s program, scaling the program has proved challenging. Engaging and recruiting prospective students to expand the program’s reach, particularly over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, remains a growth area.
- Coordinating cost-sharing agreements: In the first iteration of the program, YWCA SEW had been responsible for securing funding for all administrative costs of the program, Gateway Technical College provided instructions, and the local FSET provider connected students to personal supports. With the added involvement of the City of Racine, Racine County, and Racine Unified School District, partners needed to re-negotiate cost-sharing agreements. Identifying which partner would bear responsibility for expansion-related costs (such as added administrative capacity, additional instruction space, and increased per-student costs), took more attention and time than partners had initially estimated.
- Slow trust-building between partners: The expansion of the HSED program was the first time many partners at the table had worked together, which required time to develop communication formats, understand needs and stressors, and effectively determine areas of responsibility. Most recently, as the program expanded to RUSD and youth and young adults became involved, relationships and trust were slow to develop.
- Transitioning to remote learning: During the COVID-19 pandemic, all iterations of YWCA SEW’s program were required to move to exclusively virtual instruction. Not all students had consistent or reliable internet or computer access, which presented a challenge to continued instruction.
The annual Racine County Economic and Workforce Profile shows an average unemployment rate of 12 percent in the City of Racine, higher than the county (8.6 percent) and nearly double the state of Wisconsin (6.7 percent).
In an effort to keep the test aligned with federal Common Core education standards, GED Testing Service makes the national GED test significantly more difficult. As a result, nationwide GED attainment drops by close to 90 percent.
In response to the new GED test, the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin (SEW), led by Jennifer de Montmollin and Jacob Gorges, creates a new HSED curriculum focused on applied skills. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) ultimately approves the program, making it one of the only state-credentialed HSED programs in Wisconsin. The program launches in Milwaukee that fall, with its first cohort graduating in Spring 2016.
After two years of successful outcomes in Milwaukee, the YWCA SEW is contacted by the Racine FoodShare Employment and Training provider to discuss bringing the HSED program to Racine County. Leaders from YWCA SEW and Racine County ultimately agree to an expansion. Racine County provides free classroom space to the program, and Gateway Technical College provides instructors. 50 students are enrolled in the program’s first cohort.
With nearly 8,000 adults without a high school diploma and an unemployment rate nearly double the state average, Cory Mason, Racine’s newly-elected Mayor, announces his intention to prioritize employment and workforce development. After several months in office, the Mayor, his team (led by Vicky Selkowe), and Higher Expectations for Racine County (led by Chelsea Powell), identify the YWCA SEW’s newly expanded HSED program as a promising investment to improve workforce outcomes for residents.
With support from Higher Expectations, Mayor Mason’s administration is selected as part of RFA’s What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative. The Mayor and his staff choose to use the funding that comes from the initiative to aid the expansion of the HSED program in Racine. Initial investments boost coordination and collaboration capacity, bringing together YWCA SEW, Gateway Technical College, Higher Expectations, and Racine Unified School District (RUSD) to serve more students.
Conversations led by Mayor Mason’s administration and Higher Expectations bring together RUSD and the YWCA SEW. RUSD and YWCA SEW bring a proposal to the Racine School Board to deliver YWCA SEW’s program for credit deficient and/or school detached 18-21 year olds. Participants who complete the program will receive an RUSD high school diploma rather than an HSED. The Racine School Board approves the proposal and the adapted program launches in the Fall of 2019.
With the spread of the global COVID-19 pandemic, YWCA SEW is forced to quickly shift to delivering all versions of their HSED program fully virtually. The City of Racine’s WWC funding, resources from FSET, and contributions from other community partners helps students access reliable, consistent internet connections to continue the program online. Additional philanthropic funding provided refurbished laptops to students in need.
RUSD and YWCA SEW enter an agreement whereby RUSD leases and administers YWCA SEW’s HSED curriculum. This functions as both a credit recovery and full alternative learning option that allows current RUSD students who are significantly behind on credits to get back on track to receiving their high school diploma on time with their graduating class.
How did leaders confront the problem?
- City struggles with high unemployment, low educational attainment: For decades, Racine had one of the highest unemployment rates in the state of Wisconsin and low educational attainment rates, with roughly 1 in 5 adult residents lacking a high school diploma or equivalent. When the GED was reformed in 2014, significantly fewer residents were able to earn the credential and were thus ineligible for the large number of jobs that required a high school diploma or its equivalent.
- Newly-elected Mayor prioritizes workforce development: Mayor Cory Mason takes office in November 2017, committing to rebuilding the city’s middle class and improving workforce development opportunities in Racine.
- Local non-profit convenes city leaders to address economic mobility: Higher Expectations, a Racine-based collective impact non-profit, had long convened city leaders from across sectors to identify solutions to the city’s persistent education and workforce problems. With increased momentum stemming from the new Mayor’s agenda, the coalition identifies YWCA SEW’s HSED program as a promising initiative, and begins work to expand the program’s reach and impact in the City of Racine.
How was the strategy designed?
- YWCA SEW designs new adult education program: In response to changes in the GED, Jacob Gorges, Adult Education Director at YWCA Southeast Wisconsin (SEW), designed a new HSED curriculum focused on applied learning and demonstrations of practical skills instead of abstract testing. The curriculum was approved by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in October 2015 and was first taught to students in Milwaukee in the same year, with retention and graduation rates over 80 percent.
- HSED program employs modular and cohort-based design: Acknowledging adult learners’ need for flexibility, the program is split into three modules and allows students to keep credits for completed coursework while they work to complete other modules, even as time elapses. Students move through the program as part of a cohort, building close bonds between students and fostering accountability.
- Connecting students with needed resources: Recognizing the numerous barriers that often prevent adult learners from completing academic programs, YWCA SEW’s HSED program includes a range of supports for its students. These include assistance for transportation, childcare, and food insecurity.
- Gateway Technical College provides instructors, co-enrolls students: To ensure a consistent pipeline of high-quality instructors and cost-efficient program operation, YWCA SEW partnered with Gateway Technical College, which agreed to provide faculty and funding for the program using federal resources for adult education. All adult HSED students are co-enrolled at Gateway, allowing them to access the school's resources and build momentum towards post-secondary enrollment.
How was the plan implemented?
- Agreements reached, program operations begin: Once initial agreements were reached with Racine County and Gateway Technical College, the HSED program launched with the support of Jacob Gorges, YWCA SEW’s Adult Education Director, and a Coordinator provided in-kind by Racine County.
- Early student recruitment: Recruitment and outreach were primarily done through consistent presence at Racine County’s Workforce Solutions building, which houses many workforce development programs, including TANF and FSET. Additionally, other community-based organizations were alerted about the program and advised of referral processes.
- Students are enrolled and classes begin: 50 students make up the HSED program's first cohort in Racine in 2017. Classes are held in a county-provided space, free of charge.
- Additional coordinating capacity: Ten months into program operation, YWCA SEW received funding to hire a dedicated Coordinator, who works directly with students to connect them with resources and support their academic journey.
- Early success leads to expansion: Recognizing the effectiveness of YWCA SEW’s HSED program, local leaders sought to double the program’s capacity and impact. The County committed additional instruction space to the program, and Gateway Technical College provided additional instructors. In the program’s first two years, it served over 150 students and boasted a completion rate of over 75 percent.
How was the approach funded?
- Early funding enables initial expansion: YWCA SEW secured initial funding from multiple sources, including the United Way of Racine County and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Third Party Program, which is referred to as FSET Match in Wisconsin. These funds go toward programmatic costs, which are estimated at $3,500 per graduating student.
- RFA What Works Cities grant helps build capacity: The City of Racine received $150,000 to help expand the HSED program from the What Works Cities Economic Mobility initiative, along with technical assistance and capacity-building support.
- State and federal funding leveraged for instruction and student supports: Course instruction is funded by Gateway Technical College, drawing on federal funds for adult education, with student support resources provided by connecting students with existing available resources, largely via the local FSET provider.
- Program administration and coordination: Program administration is led by YWCA SEW, with funding from United Way of Racine County, the Racine Community Foundation, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding from the City of Racine, FSET Match, and a variety of small grants and foundation gifts.
- Per-student reimbursements from School District: RUSD reimburses YWCA SEW $1,500 per RUSD co-enrolled student, a portion of the per-student costs associated with running the program for 18-21 year old students co-enrolled with the District.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- Data collection makes the case for expansion: YWCA SEW tracks a wide range of individual student outcomes, including academic performance, work readiness skills, meetings attended, and conversations with staff. Close monitoring of student outcomes has been instrumental in the program's expansion.
- YWCA SEW’s program grows to deliver high school diplomas in addition to HSEDs: With clear evidence of positive impact serving adult learners, the YWCA SEW was approached by RUSD to discuss the possibility of enrolling former RUSD students without a high school diploma. The two partners came to an agreement which allows young adults aged 18-21 who pass the HSED program to receive a full RUSD diploma, rather than an equivalency degree.
- RUSD seeks to address educational attainment upstream: Building on the partnership created to serve former RUSD students, RUSD and YWCA SEW entered into an agreement whereby RUSD leases and administers YWCA SEW’s HSED curriculum for a credit recovery and alternative education program. First offered in the 2021-2022 school year, the program allows current RUSD students who are severely credit deficient to get back on track and finish high school with their graduating class. In the program's first year, it helped 144 students across all three RUSD high schools recover enough credits to graduate on time.
- Assessing post-graduation outcomes: The YWCA is currently working with the City of Racine and Higher Expectations for Racine County to gather student employment data with the State of Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development and the University of Wisconsin - Parkside, which are providing financial and logistical support to administer a survey on post-graduation outcomes. The results will be published in late Fall of 2021.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in the completion of this case study: Vicky Selkowe and Shannon Powell of the City of Racine, Jacob Gorges and Jennifer de Montmollin of the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin, and Chelsea Powell of Higher Expectations for Racine County.
This case study was written by Vicki Kidd and Ross Tilchin.