Research shows that attendance is one of the greatest predictors of graduation and a significant driver of student achievement. Diplomas Now is an innovative model that targets attendance as it helps the toughest middle and high schools in America’s largest cities prepare students to graduate from high school ready for college or career. It is the first fully integrated approach that improves a school’s curriculum and instruction while providing students with the right support to improve their ABCs — attendance, behavior, and course performance.

Diplomas Now partners with 41 middle and high schools across the country. The program unites three national nonprofits:

Johns Hopkins University’s Talent Development Secondary, a school reform model that improves instruction and performance

Communities In Schools’ case managers who help the neediest students access community resources, such as counseling, health care, housing, food and clothing

City Year’s young-adult “near peers” provide tutoring, reward positive behavior, and involve students in service and enrichment programs.

City Year corps members are particularly important in encouraging good attendance: they welcome students every day as they arrive to school and when students are absent, they call the students or their parents if they don’t show up. In addition, several Diplomas Now schools offer incentives to encourage all students to come to school every day, such as breakfast in a VIP room or Diplomas Now dollars to use in a school store.

Such extra steps have created a school-wide culture that encourages students to arrive to school on time ready to learn. In addition, the Diplomas Now team specifically targets individual students who are chronically absent, i.e. missing a month or more of school. In one New Orleans high school, the percentage of ninth graders missing 20 or more days of school dropped from 79 percent to 52 percent. In three Philadelphia middle schools, the number of students missing 40 or more days of school dropped 55 percent.

The emphasis on school attendance is backed by research by Robert Balfanz, one of the nation’s leading dropout experts, who found that three-quarters of all dropouts can be identified as early as sixth grade due to poor attendance, poor behavior or failure in English or math. Working with administrators and teachers, Diplomas Now teams identify those students early and work to get them back on track.

This approach has led to a significant increase in attendance at many Diplomas Now schools.

Aki Kurose Middle School Academy in south Seattle was named the winner of the 2011 Get Schooled Fall Attendance Challenge, improving its overall attendance by a remarkable 3.7 percent in average daily attendance. How did they do it? City Year corps members “power welcomed” kids to school with music and dance. Kids got recorded wake-up calls from celebrities. They earned points by recognizing the teachers who inspired them to come to school every day, and showing off their knowledge in online trivia quizzes. At Miami Jackson Senior High School, about 27 percent of the ninth graders had poor attendance and the extra supports helped most of them to boost their attendance. Their increases were large enough to lift the school’s overall attendance rate for the 2010-2011 school year above 90 percent.

Boston’s Dever-McCormack Middle School used a dance, dubbed the AttenDANCE, to motivate students to attend. The dance was open only to the kids who attended school at least 95 percent of the time during the second term, which spanned about 45 school days. More than 200 sixth-graders attended the school’s first AttenDANCE event in January. Organizers – the Diplomas Now team and two other local nonprofits, Citizen Schools and Tenacity – held the dance at a hall across from the school, making students even more excited. One student, who was court-mandated last fall to attend school, earned perfect attendance in his effort to be included in the first AttenDANCE event. Such efforts have helped Dever-McCormack achieve dramatic, double-digit attendance gains. Last year, a third of the students had an average daily attendance rate of less than 92 percent. This year, just 23 percent of students fall into that category. Any student whose attendance is less than 92 percent is considered “off track.”

In the fall of 2011, Diplomas Now awarded its first “Big Ideas” mini-grants to six partner schools in Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., for their creative ideas to improve students’ attendance, behavior and course performance. Among the winning ideas to get kids to come to school: Tasty Treat Thursdays with churros and ice cream for kids with perfect attendance.

“Diplomas Now makes the kids feel like everyday heroes. It makes them feel they matter,” says Principal Joanne Carrillo of John Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles, a recipient of a Big Ideas mini-grant.

The Diplomas Now program has helped boost attendance, improve achievement and reduce the number of student suspensions at its partner schools. The program continues to grow each year as it allocates resources where they are most needed so that students stay on track to graduate.