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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ graduation rate climbs to 81%

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Graduation rates in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and North Carolina hit record highs in 2013, with CMS logging significant gains among its most disadvantaged students and at long-struggling schools.

CMS tallied an 81 percent rate, the first time in eight years of tracking that more than 80 percent of students who started high school year four years earlier earned their diplomas on time. That represents a 15-point gain over the last five years, bringing CMS even with Wake County for the first time.

Counselors and other faculty monitored transcripts, visited students’ homes and applied personal pressure to make sure students who fell behind kept trying, even if it meant coming in on Saturdays to make up failures and absences.

“A lot of our students get discouraged,” said Grady Cathey, head of West Mecklenburg High’s counseling department. “I think our job is to give them hope: We’re not giving up on you so don’t give up on yourself.”

West Meck saw a 10-point bump in the graduation rate. West Charlotte, which has been the target of turnaround efforts for years, went from 56 percent to 71 percent in one year, a 15-point gain.

Although it wasn’t mentioned at the news conference, an unknown number of CMS students also benefitted from a drop in graduation requirements launched five years ago. The CMS Class of 2013 was the first since graduation-rate tracking began to be allowed to graduate with 24 credits, compared with 28 in previous years. The state mandates only 22. A student who passes all courses accumulates 32 credits in four years.

The Observer requested a tally of how many of this year’s 7,762 on-time graduates had fewer than 28 credits, but Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said he does not have those numbers yet. Morrison noted that CMS remains above the state minimum and did not eliminate any core academic requirements.

North Carolina’s 82.5 percent rate was the highest since it began tracking with the Class of 2006. All districts in the Charlotte area topped 80 percent, and three – Mooresville city schools, Catawba County and Union County – topped 90 percent.

State officials cite a greater range of offerings, including small alternative high schools and more career-focused classes, and credit-recovery programs that help students catch up with a mix of online lessons and personal help.

“I am so proud of our school district today,” said CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison, who started in 2012. “The contributions of our teachers have got to be lifted up.”

Challenges remain

In a meeting with principals, teachers and parents from across the district earlier Thursday, Morrison cued up the song “Celebrate” and called principals to the front of the clapping, dancing crowd to mark the gains. But he was also quick to note that almost one in five students still didn’t graduate with the Class of 2013 – and that a high school diploma is only a bare-bones starting point for adult success.

The 2013 numbers represent a payoff of years of dropout prevention efforts by CMS and many agencies working with the students. But they also show that minority, low-income and disabled students still trail their classmates.

Several years ago, CMS students in those groups not only trailed white and middle-class students in the district, but fell well below state and Wake County averages for the same groups. That has been slowly changing, with a bump this year.

Black, Hispanic and low-income students in CMS were more likely to graduate in 2013 than their counterparts in Wake, the state’s largest district. All three groups in CMS saw gains of about 5 percentage points in one year.

“Exceptional children,” a particularly challenging group to compare because it encompasses a wide range of physical, mental and psychological disabilities, has long been a weak point for CMS. The graduation rate rose from 44.8 percent to 53.5 percent but remains well below the state average (62.3 percent) and Wake’s rate (59.6 percent).

Students with limited English proficiency remained flat at 46.1 percent in CMS. Every other group in CMS saw gains, with white students going from 86.5 percent to 91 percent.

Graduation strategies

West Charlotte and West Meck, which logged the biggest gains in CMS, have been the focus of intensive efforts to improve student results. But their tactics are similar to those being used around the district and the state.

“One of our greatest levers for change was harassment,” deadpanned West Meck Principal Eric Ward, referring to the intensive monitoring and pressure to keep trying.

Shelby Davis, an 18-year-old West Meck student who graduated in June, smiled and nodded at his reference. She said she fell behind when she gave birth to her daughter as a 10th grader. Her counselors, along with her mother and father, pushed her to do the extra work to graduate on time.

“I couldn’t have done it without them making sure I come, making sure I stay, making sure I have everything I need,” she said.

West Meck used a federal School Improvement Grant to provide teacher training in strategies to help at-risk students. “Increasing the graduation rate doesn’t mean lowering the standards or lowering the rigor in your classroom,” Ward said.

Ward also bragged that he brought Elaine King, “one of CMS’ finest counselors,” out of retirement to ride herd on students like Davis. King said she’d look at each student’s attendance record and see whether they tended to skip classes. She’d go by the classroom to look in on them, and urge them to use Saturday classes and GradPoint digital lessons to catch up.

“A lot of our students get discouraged,” said Grady Cathey, head of West Meck’s counseling department. “I think our job is to give them hope: We’re not giving up on you so don’t give up on yourself.”

Timisha Barnes-Jones, an assistant principal at West Charlotte High, said her staff also made home visits and scheduled Saturday classes. “Learning got real personal last year at West Charlotte,” she said.

West Charlotte has just completed the first year of the five-year Project LIFT, which has raised $55 million in pledges to get the school’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2017. Project LIFT officials are so excited by the 15 percentage-point gain that they’ve scheduled a more detailed news conference for Friday.

In the coming year, Morrison plans to launch new magnets and alternative high schools to keep students on the graduation track. He is also pushing individual plans for each student that resemble a medical diagnosis, starting in kindergarten.

“Great doctors and hospitals welcome every patient, and their goal is how to get you better,” he said. “We are going to prescribe a personalized plan of progress for each child.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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