In the six years since a judge threatened to close Garinger, Waddell, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg high schools for low academic performance, those schools have been the focus of massive turnaround efforts.
County commissioners provided millions in aid. The state sent advisers. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools created special administrative zones and worked to bring in top teachers.
So how are those schools faring now?
There will be gaps in their data when CMS officials report on the districts 2012 test scores Wednesday. But an Observer analysis shows that despite progress over the past six years, those schools and the neighborhoods they serve continue to struggle.
In 2012, West Charlotte fell back to the level that angered Judge Howard Manning in 2006, when he weighed in on whether North Carolina public schools were meeting their constitutional mandate.
Waddell was closed last year, with most of its students reassigned to Harding High. This year Harding logged a pass rate lower than Waddell did in its final year.
Garinger was split into five small schools, then reunited last year. The unified school has the districts second-lowest graduation rate and third-lowest pass rate on state exams.
West Meck has made modest but significant gains on test scores and graduation rates. But it remains in the bottom tier for CMS.
All schools have seen poverty levels rise and middle-class students depart in the past six years. The three remaining schools and Harding served just over 7,100 teens last year, and more than 80 percent qualified for lunch aid to low-income families.
Tracking year-to-year progress at the struggling high schools is challenging for a number of reasons. The state has changed its testing system. In 2006, pass rates were based on exams given at the end of 10 high school courses. Last year it was down to three English I, algebra I and biology and the state added a chance for students to try again.
CMS data flaws inflated some graduation rates six years ago, and the bad numbers remain on state records.
Wednesdays report comparing 2011 and 2012 performance will be dotted with NA blanks for the struggling high schools because of CMS testing violations. This year West Charlotte and Harding failed to meet the state rule that 95 percent of students in courses with state exams must actually take the tests, a measure designed to avoid padding results by sidetracking weak students. In 2011, Waddell, West Meck and some of the Garinger schools failed to test enough students.
Heres an update on whats known.
Garinger: Split and reunited
The 2006 decision to split the eastside school into five academies made data tracking nearly impossible. Test scores and graduation rates at the small schools dipped and soared; such fluctuations are common when the number of students is small.
Before Superintendent Peter Gorman resigned in 2011, he decided to end the small-school experiment at Garinger. But Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark said this week that 2011-12 class schedules had already been logged into the computer under five school codes. Rather than redo schedules, she said, CMS kept reporting its data under the five defunct groupings.
Clark said CMS does not have state permission to calculate a composite for the campus.
But raw data provided by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction shows Garinger had an overall graduation rate of 63 percent, topping only West Charlotte (CMS averaged 75 percent). Garingers pass rate on the three exams was just under 65 percent, above West Charlotte and Harding (CMS averaged 80 percent).
Waddell/Harding: Forced merger
From the time Waddell opened as a southwest Charlotte neighborhood school in 2001, it struggled with reputation and academic performance.
When the school board launched a study of school closings in 2010, Waddell found itself in competition for survival with Harding, a westside magnet that had some of the districts best scores and graduation rates. After angry public meetings and protests, the board voted to close Waddell, move many of Hardings magnet students to Berry Academy and assign most of the former Waddell neighborhoods to Harding.
Soon after school opened in August, with an enrollment that had nearly doubled, reports of discipline problems and criminal acts at Harding spiked. In January, results of the 2012-13 magnet lottery showed a slump in applications for the remaining International Baccalaureate seats.
In 2011, the final year of Waddells existence, the school failed to test at least 95 percent of students, which meant the state didnt issue a formal test-score rating. But CMS said Waddells pass rate was 71 percent.
This year Harding fell short of the testing rule, and CMS said it could not release information. But a state spreadsheet showed a 63.7 percent pass rate, compared to 94.5 percent in 2011, when Harding had only magnet students.
Hardings graduation rate remains high at 88 percent, but it doesnt include former Waddell students who fell behind before being reassigned their senior year.
Clark said CMS staff will provide a detailed report on the Waddell/Harding merger in late September.
West Charlotte: Sudden plunge
Long before the judges closing threat, CMS leaders had been trying to reverse a history of low test scores at West Charlotte. Under Principal John Modest, hired from a Raleigh magnet school in 2005, test scores began to rise. West Charlotte went from just over 40 percent passing in 2006 to a peak of 72 percent in 2010, the year after Modest left and Shelton Jefferies took over.
Scores dipped to 68 percent in 2011, then plunged to 44 percent in 2012. That number was driven partly by more than 200 students who didnt show up for exams and were counted as failures.
Clark and Denise Watts, who became the zone superintendent over West Charlotte in March, say it always takes extra work to get students in high-poverty schools to take exams, especially if theyre already headed toward failing the class or dropping out. But neither could explain why West Charlotte saw a spike in no-shows and a drop in successful test-takers.
The schools graduation rates can be confusing. In 2006, the first year North Carolina tracked incoming ninth-graders to see how many graduated four years later, West Charlotte reported that 81 percent had graduated on time. CMS officials later said that number was unintentionally inflated, but did not issue a corrected rate. The 2007 rate fell to 64 percent, and this years is just under 56 percent.
Jefferies left to take a position in Union County Schools before this years results came out. John Wall Jr., who spent the past year leading Modests former magnet school in Raleigh, has been hired to take his place.
Project LIFT, a public-private partnership with a five-year plan to invest $55 million in West Charlotte and its feeder schools, hopes to have the schools graduation rate at 90 percent by 2014.
West Meck: Slow and steady
Of the four schools, West Meck has seen the least turmoil. But it has had three principals in the last six years, with Eric Ward taking over last year.
This years graduation rate of almost 67 percent is at a six-year high. Pass rates on state exams have hovered near 70 percent since 2009, when the state started requiring a second try for failing students. This years rate is just under 69 percent.
The poverty level at West Meck inched past 75 percent last year, which means it will get federal Title I aid. West Charlotte, Garinger and Harding have even higher levels.
Wednesdays report to the school board will outline one trend thats likely to pose challenges at all four schools. Pass rates on the states algebra I exam have declined significantly over the past two years for African American, Hispanic and low-income students, who make up the vast majority at all four schools.
Mastering algebra is crucial to tackling more advanced math and science and earning a diploma. Clark said both the course and the exam are expected to get tougher in 2012-13, as North Carolina and CMS move toward national academic standards. She said her staff is working on better ways to help all students succeed in algebra.