Despite signs of progress, students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's struggling urban high schools remain far less prepared for college and careers than peers at more affluent suburban schools.
They are even falling behind disadvantaged students around the state, new data shows.
The district's “challenge schools” – Garinger, Waddell, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg – have made hard-fought gains on state exams. But recent reports on graduation rates and tests of college readiness raise questions about how much real-life progress the students have achieved.
Those reports highlight yawning gaps between schools, strongly linked to family income and race. Consider:
In the south suburban Providence, Ardrey Kell and Butler high schools, with white majorities and some of the district's lowest poverty levels, at least 80 percent of the freshmen who entered four years earlier claimed diplomas this year. Three of the four challenge schools, where most students are minorities from low-income homes, logged graduation rates below 60 percent, with Garinger at 67 percent.
At Providence, Ardrey Kell and Butler, pass rates on 2009 Advanced Placement exams ranged from 70 percent to 81 percent. At the challenge schools, pass rates on the college-level tests ranged from 10 percent to 17 percent.
The four challenge schools combined had fewer students taking AP exams than Providence alone.
More than two-thirds of seniors at the south suburban schools took the SAT, required for admission to many four-year colleges. Fewer than half at the challenge schools took the test, and their average scores were among the district's lowest.
John Dornan, president of the nonprofit Public School Forum of North Carolina, said the SAT report “hit me like a ton of bricks.”
In his statewide electronic newsletter, he cited the performance gaps between CMS schools, as well as gaps between affluent and impoverished counties, as evidence that “the iron triangle” – parents' education, family income and race – remains a painfully strong predictor of academic performance.
“For all that we have done in the last 20 or 30 years, you look at these numbers and they just don't move,” Dornan said Friday.
Superintendent Peter Gorman notes that CMS's low-income and minority students – and the schools where many of them are concentrated – have made gains on many measures of academic achievement.
“We're not at the level we need to be, but we're moving in the right direction,” he said. “We're going to fight that battle over time. It's not an excuse, but it's a national problem we're dealing with.”
Yet CMS's black and low-income students are moving the wrong way when it comes to getting a high-school diploma, often considered the bare-bones minimum for earning a living wage.
Graduation rates for those groups have declined over the last four years, a state report shows. Not only are they far less likely to graduate than white and Asian classmates, but they're significantly behind black and low-income students around the state.
The first step
Persistently low pass rates on state exams sparked the “challenge” label in 2005.
Fewer than half the students at Garinger, Waddell, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg were passing tests given at the end of key math, science, English and social studies courses. A judge threatened to close those schools if they didn't improve, and county commissioners pledged $3 million a year to turn them around.
Gorman, who arrived in 2006, pumped the money into hefty signing bonuses to recruit stronger staff, as well as pay hikes tied to pass rates. He created a special “Achievement Zone” administrative and support team, with a budget of an additional $3 million a year, to bolster those high schools, along with some low-performing elementary and middle schools. He sent some of their least-prepared rising ninth-graders to a separate academy to catch up.
For the most part, test-score gains followed. Last year's pass rates were 60 percent for Waddell, 68 percent for West Charlotte and 71 percent for West Meck.
Garinger split into six small schools, with wildly divergent results on most academic measures. Pass rates ranged from 39 percent to 80 percent at the small Garingers.
Curtis Carroll, who heads the Achievement Zone, says helping students master required classes is the first step toward getting them ready for college. Many who pass aren't yet doing well enough to succeed on tougher tests, such as AP exams and SATs, he said.
“We feel that we've made tremendous strides,” Carroll said. “Now we can change our focus to the Advanced Placement tests so our students can be successful in college.”
Quest for diplomas
In CMS and across the state, roughly 80 percent of the white and Asian students who started high school in August 2005 graduated this year.
Statewide, 63 percent of black students and 62 percent of low-income students graduated in four years. But CMS graduated only 56 percent of black students and 52 percent of low-income students. Meanwhile, the same groups in Guilford, Wake and districts surrounding Charlotte generally topped state averages.
Hispanic students fared about the same in CMS (58 percent) and statewide (59 percent).
For students with disabilities – a category that ranges from relatively mild learning or speech impairments to severe mental and psychological issues – the gap between CMS and other districts is profound. Only 39 percent of CMS student classified as disabled met the four-year diploma standard, compared with 57 percent statewide and in Wake County and more than 60 percent in several districts surrounding Charlotte.
Last fall, Gorman assigned two top officials to lead a new dropout-prevention push. Budget cuts undermined their plans, he said, and one recently left for another school district.
This year, Gorman has vowed to start fresh. Keeping kids in school will be the No.1 item on evaluations for all top administrators, he says.
CMS has long prided itself on offering a wide array of Advanced Placement courses, considered a good way to prepare teens for college.
Although black students outnumber white ones in CMS, the new report shows more than twice as many white students took AP exams this spring, and the white students were more than twice as likely to pass.
Participation and success rates were low at the challenge schools. West Charlotte and Waddell were the only full-size high schools where fewer than 100 students took AP exams (Myers Park, at the high end, had 778). At Waddell, which had almost 1,100 students last year, 48 took 96 AP exams. Ninety percent scored too low for credit.
Still, there has been some progress. For years, West Charlotte's AP pass rate was below 5 percent; this year it was 17 percent.
Students at the challenge schools were also far less likely to take the college-readiness SAT exam, and to score well when they did take it. CMS is among several urban and suburban N.C. districts that have seen SAT participation slump, a trend some Wake County officials attribute to the economy.
CMS officials say they're puzzled and troubled by dwindling numbers of SAT-takers. “Having a successful college-going population is part of our charge and mission,” Gorman said.
This year West Charlotte, West Meck and two of the five small Garingers are opening with new principals. The Achievement Zone has added an elementary and middle school that feed into West Charlotte, hoping to boost kids' skills before they reach high school. Carroll says high schools will focus on supporting ninth-graders, because most dropouts get into academic trouble the first year.
The mission for all involved is to keep moving toward educational equality, Gorman and Carroll say.
“We've got a long way to go,” Carroll said, “ but I think – no, I know – we're going in the right direction.”