When students are held back in a grade (or retained), they are less likely to complete high school, according to both national and Chicago-specific research. Most efforts to respond to the risk of grade retention have focused on the individual characteristics of the student. There has been little attention to systemic-level factors that affect student retention—an important lens because:

  1. High school graduation is highly predictive of many later-life outcomes, including health, employment, income, and incarceration.
  2. Structural racism—manifested in racially segregated neighborhoods and high-poverty schools—results in different lived experiences and grade retention rates by race and gender.
  3. Understanding how structural factors are related to student retention can help us: a. Learn how and where to intervene with education, neighborhood, and housing policies at the federal, state, and district level, and; b. Help reimagine schools and classrooms as sites that disrupt mechanisms of inequity and protect students against factors associated with not graduating from high school.

Knowing that students’ neighborhood and school environments influence grade retention, educators, city leaders, policymakers & advocates could consider strategies to reduce retention rates and increase high school graduation rates by:

  1. Using data-driven discussions to understand what additional supports students need to avoid being retained in grade (e.g., transportation, access to housing, accessible academic supports, school practices, etc.).
  2. Working to decrease financial strain and promote more positive neighborhood conditions for families, making connections across policy areas:
    • Increasing housing affordability programs that support rental affordability and home ownership;
    • Adding more green space such as building parks, planting trees, bushes, and grass; and
    • Investing in programs like Chi Block Builder (previously known as Large Lot Program) to reclaim abandoned or vacant lots for community organizations and neighbors to repurpose.

        ...and more. See the full research summary snapshot for details. 

Key Findings

  • Students were more likely to be retained if they lived in census tracts with high rates of unaffordable housing, high rates of neighborhood poverty, low rates of home ownership, or limited access to green space.
  • Students were more likely to be retained in grade if they attended elementary schools with high poverty rates and high suspension rates, even when comparing students with similar achievement.
  • Overage students who attended high schools with a great racial equity climate were twice as likely to graduate high school in four years as overage students who attended schools with poor racial equity climate.
  • Students who attended high schools with higher levels of civic engagement among students were also more likely to graduate than students who started high school with similar achievement levels but attended schools with lower levels of civic engagement.