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West Charlotte grad rates get personal

At the start of last school year, West Charlotte High counselors reviewed transcripts and found 112 seniors who needed more than a year’s worth of credits to graduate.

They started hounding those students to stay after school and come on Saturdays so they could catch up on credits and graduate with their class.

Meanwhile, Principal John Wall was bombarding all students with a message: Do you know almost half of last year’s class failed to graduate on time? Do you understand how the lack of a diploma stunts your earning potential?

“Part of educating kids is not allowing them to fail or to quit,” Wall said Friday at a news conference discussing his school’s jump from a 56 percent graduation rate in 2012 to 71 percent in 2013.

The 2012-13 school year was the first year of Project LIFT’s five-year quest to boost achievement at West Charlotte and its eight feeder schools. The goals, fueled by $55 million in private pledges, include pushing the graduation rate past 90 percent in 2017.

Denise Watts, superintendent for the Project Lift zone, said the public-private partnership pumped “stimulation and energy” into a school that has long worked to turn around low graduation rates. But she and West Charlotte faculty said most of the specific efforts that boosted the school’s rate are shared by other Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools.

And Watts said the Class of 2013 deserves credit. “We couldn’t do it without the students. They have to have the determination and the resilience to achieve the goals that we set out for them.”

The West Charlotte crew, like the district officials who announced Thursday that the districtwide rate had moved up 5 percentage points to 81 percent, said they don’t know the impact of a change in CMS graduation requirements. In 2008, the school board cut the required credits from 28 to 24, starting with the Class of 2013, in hopes of helping more students earn a diploma.

North Carolina requires only 22 credits, though many districts demand more. Wake County, which also logged an 81 percent graduation rate, requires 26 at most high schools, though it’s lower at some magnets.

Hard-won gains

West Charlotte High, where most students are African-American and from low-income homes, has long struggled to break the links between race, poverty and academic failure, a challenge in urban schools across the country.

Federal money for high-poverty and low-performing schools helped West Charlotte add faculty and pay teachers to work after school, on Saturdays and during summers.

Across CMS, counselors start the year by reviewing transcripts to see which student need extra help to graduate on time.

Curtina Stokes, who had moved from Virginia in 11th grade, said she discovered that many of her credits didn’t transfer. At the start of her senior year she needed 14 credits to graduate; a normal course load would give her eight. She took advantage of after-hours classes, which combined computerized lessons and personal instruction, to catch up on the additional classes. She graduated in June and will go to CPCC.

Other students faced such challenges as homelessness, family turmoil, stints in jail and teen parenthood, said Kevin Poirier, a science teacher who worked with the LIFT Academy, a special setting for students who were at least two years behind.

He said he had only 16 students in his class and they stayed with him all year, building a bond that encouraged them to keep trying. They could stay from 2:30 to 5 p.m. every day, demonstrating mastery of the skills on computerized exams and making up “seat time” if they had been sidetracked by absences.

Some of those students had already missed their chance to graduate on time, but earned diplomas that will let them move on. Wall said counselors helped students make plans for life after high school: “Graduating is just part of it. What are you graduating to?”

The result: West Charlotte had 305 on-time graduates in June, up from 221 the previous year. An additional 38 students who should have graduated in 2012 got their diplomas.

Too good to be true?

Skeptics immediately questioned the 15 percentage-point jump in graduation rates. Doubters noted that CMS has posted erroneous numbers before: When the state began reporting four-year graduation rates in 2006, CMS reported a rate of 81 percent at West Charlotte. After the Observer and state officials raised questions, district officials retracted that number, saying hundreds of students at West Charlotte and other schools had been improperly coded.

Watts said the current state reporting system is carefully vetted by district and state officials: “It’s not anything that we can fudge or change.”

Some have also voiced doubts about computerized “credit recovery” programs at West Charlotte and other schools, suggesting that students and/or faculty eager to boost graduation rates could use the system to obtain unearned credit.

Assistant Principal Timisha Barnes-Jones said students must earn scores of at least 80 percent to demonstrate mastery, and in many cases must produce additional work.

“We have a strict process to ensure integrity,” she said. “Many, many eyeballs were on the work.”

Next: Keep pushing

While school leaders celebrated the gain, they said more work remains. The 71 percent graduation rate is still the lowest of CMS’ regular high schools, most of which also made gains in 2013.

Watts and Wall said they don’t expect to introduce big changes in the coming school year. Instead, they’ll be working to make sure the current strategies are being executed well.

Among them: A freshman academy to make sure students stay on track from the start. Students who fall behind their first year tend to become “perpetual ninth-graders” who eventually drop out, Wall said. He said the school increased the number of freshmen who had enough credits for promotion.

“That ninth grade is a critical, critical year,” he said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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