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Rise in graduation rates worth applause

In 2010, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools set a goal for a high school graduation rate of 90 percent, it was an ambitious target. Just the year before only 66 percent of students who started with their ninth grade class had gotten their diplomas. But this editorial board knew it was attainable, and we urged public support for a community-wide strategy to achieve the goal.

Thursday’s release of 2013 graduation rates have put that 2014 goal within reach. 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 four years earlier earned their diplomas on time. Statewide graduation rates went up as well, with the state average now at 82.5 percent.

That success deserves applause. Much of the credit goes to educators, who even in the face of N.C. lawmakers’ broadsides against them – among other things, teachers once again got no pay raise this year and N.C. teacher salaries rank 46th nationally – stayed focused on helping students remain in school and meet the academic requirements to graduate.

CMS kicked off a comprehensive action plan back in the spring of 2010 involving parents, volunteers, businesses as well as educators. The strategy outlined ways from prekindergarten through 12th grade to tackle the issue. Counselors, teachers and principals tracked grades, provided academic help and guidance, visited students’ homes and pressed students hard to stay in school and work harder to succeed.

Those one-on-one interactions and pressure paid off, especially for disadvantaged students and schools that have had many low performers. Those students and schools logged some of the biggest gains. West Charlotte, for instance, increased the graduation rate from 56 percent to 71 percent in one year, a 15-point gain.

Of course, CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison is right. A high school diploma is only a starting point for adult success. N.C. public schools must provide the curriculum that ensures students graduate with the skills and academics to get and keep a job, or pursue higher learning at college or elsewhere. A more rigorous set of academic benchmarks such as those offered by the Common Core Standards, which states including North Carolina have voluntarily agreed to, will help achieve those goals.

But most essential to that outcome are effective teachers – the kind that N.C. lawmakers have made more difficult to attract and keep with stagnant wages, cuts to teacher training, increases in class sizes and elimination of teacher assistants. In their 2013 session, state lawmakers cut education spending by almost $500 million in the next two years, including a decrease in net spending for K-12 public schools.

Those draconian moves not only jeopardize the graduation gains schools made statewide this year but the more vital goal of preparing students effectively for success after they get that diploma.

Gov. Pat McCrory was right to praise “the work and talent of our classroom teachers and school principals” for the graduation improvements. But he and the legislature did little this year to maintain the momentum. They should be ashamed. Teachers and students deserved better. State policymakers must improve their performance next year.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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