Lake Norman & Mooresville

Graduation rate is the 2nd-highest in N.C.

The Mooresville Graded School district has the second-highest graduation rate in North Carolina, according to a recent state report.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction recently recognized the district its graduation rate of 91.1 percent during the 2010-11 school year. The study followed the same group of students through four years of high school (known as a four-year cohort) and recorded how many of those students graduated.

Only Elkin City Schools had a higher rate, with 91.7 percent.

The Iredell-Statesville Schools district did not appear on the top 10 list. Last year, its four-year cohort graduation rate was 85.1 percent.

"A high school diploma is essential to success in life for today's public school students," June Atkinson, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a statement. "I ... look forward to the day when all our high schools can boast a 100 percent graduation rate."

The Mooresville Graded School District, which serves about 5,500 students, has come a long way with graduation rates in the past few years, said Tanae McLean, the district's director of public information.

During the 2006-07 school year, the district had a 77 percent four-year cohort graduation rate.

School staff credit the sharp increase to its recent laptop computer initiative and to a more student-centered mentality among faculty, administration and staff.

The Mooresville district started its laptop initiative in 2007, said Todd Wirt, the former principal at Mooresville High School, who recently accepted an administrative job with the district.

By 2009, every student in grades 4 through 12 had a laptop computer.

"It's made kids start to enjoy school again," said McLean. "It gives them more choices on how they can do a project. It allows students to find a niche that helps them learn the best way they can."

Wirt said the laptop initiative also has revolutionized how faculty members teach students.

For instance, a science teacher might host a live chat the night before a test, so that students can get their last-minute questions answered, he said.

"It completely leveled the playing field with regard to access, tools and information, regardless of socio-economic level," said Wirt, who becomes the district's new executive director of instruction and career and technical education.

About the same time the district was preparing to launch the laptop initiative, Wirt said, officials noticed a culture within the system that "wasn't completely student-first."

"We started equipping teachers with some skills to help them connect with and make meaningful relationships with kids," said Wirt. "It helps you create a classroom environment where students feel safe to take risks and share. It's really about engaging every kid."

Wirt said the school district also started identifying at-risk students in the ninth grade so that the faculty could work with those students to make sure they graduated on time.

Teachers help those students by making home visits, offering additional study tips and staying in close contact with them, said Wirt.

Those relationships, which emphasize the whole child and not just academics, have helped many students to succeed, he said.

"Oftentimes, when a student is in jeopardy of dropping out, it typically has less to do with school and more to do with life," he said. "We've seen great results when teachers acknowledge other things that students might be dealing with in their life."

Graduation rates and end-of-grade test results are the most common ways in which the state measures a school's performance, said Linda Fuller, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Instruction.

During the 2010-11 school year, the Mooresville Graded School District tied for third in the state in proficiency rates on end-of-grade tests with 88 percent.

"This is huge," said Wirt of the state recognition. "It validates the work of so many people. It's a great moment for our district for sure."