Student group says rising CMS grad rates mask grim future for many black graduates

Students say CMS credit recovery program shortchanges black students

Students for Education Reform speakers urge Charlotte schools to set higher expectations, including a minimum GPA for graduation.
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Students for Education Reform speakers urge Charlotte schools to set higher expectations, including a minimum GPA for graduation.

A controversial online program that helps failing high school students graduate was blasted this week by some of the young adults who are supposed to be its beneficiaries.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ credit recovery program lets students who fail a course take online lessons to pass. But it allows too many students in high-poverty, mostly black schools graduate with grade-point averages too low for college admission, a group of high school and college students told the school board Tuesday.

“Credit recovery does not prepare students for mastery of content, much less for life,” said Kennedy Cook, a sophomore at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University and a member of Students For Education Reform, a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group with a North Carolina branch. Cook called credit recovery “a scam” that “passes students through a failing system.”

Credit recovery has been controversial across North Carolina, with the state Board of Education questioning whether the state’s rising graduation rate reflects real academic gains or artificial inflation.

“Sometimes it makes you wonder if there’s a little bit of a numbers game going on,” state board member Becky Taylor said in 2017, according to a News & Observer report at the time.

Advocates of credit recovery say it provides hope for students who have failed classes and might otherwise drop out. Graduation rates are one of the ways North Carolina rates the quality of public schools.

High school and college students from the reform group told the Charlotte board that they or their friends took credit recovery classes without realizing that they wouldn’t earn a higher grade to replace the F that drags their GPA down. That can leave students with a high school diploma but little chance of college admission, they said.

Students who retake a class and earn a better grade will see their GPA rise.

Some of Tuesday’s speakers reported credit recovery problems in North Carolina districts other than CMS, including Durham.

“You’re looking at a product of credit recovery, which I’m kind of embarrassed to admit,” said Isis Muhammad, a JCSU student who said she had to start at community college. “I was devastated to learn that my future in college was nearly impossible because credit recovery did not raise my GPA to a standard 2.0.”

Tuesday’s speakers noted what the Observer has previously reported: High-poverty schools serving mostly black and Hispanic students have seen graduation rates rise dramatically in recent years without a corresponding increase in test scores that indicate college readiness.

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West Mecklenburg High senior Aiyana Jenkins told the board that can leave her classmates at a disadvantage in college and career competition. “I’m asking for you to raise expectations for the school system across the board,” Jenkins said.

The group made several requests to CMS:

Require full disclosure, including signed consent from parents, that any student taking credit recovery won’t get a higher grade.

Create a standard credit recovery program for all schools, taking place after school instead of during the school days, with a teacher on duty who can help students master the content covered by the online program.

Require a minimum 2.0 GPA or an industry certification in career-technology classes for graduation.

Produce a public report on how many graduates got through on credit recovery and monitor that question as part of the equity policy the CMS board is trying to develop.

“I’m tired of watching students who look like me — and half of this board — sink because of this district’s low expectations,” said SFER’s North Carolina director, Sharika Comfort. Like most of the SFER speakers, she is African American.

“Our higher learning campaign is not focused on holding students back when they need to be propelled forward,” said Gia Claybrooks, senior lead organizer for the group. “Our campaign is focused on caring about them so much that we can’t fathom them staying in poverty.”

Board members don’t respond directly to public speakers. But later in the meeting, members Ruby Jones and Ericka Ellis-Stewart said they want Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to report back on ways to improve the credit recovery program.

Wilcox, who started in July 2017, reviewed the district’s credit recovery plan soon after that and concluded that there was no systemic abuse, the Observer reported at the time. He also took steps to improve the program, such as retraining teachers and administrators, stepping up monitoring and requiring supervision by a proctor.

Wilcox didn’t discuss the students’ remarks about credit recovery at Tuesday’s meeting.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.