Graduation rates declined this year for virtually every Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school, according to statistics released Thursday.
Superintendent Peter Gorman said local schools need to do a better job, but cautioned that a more aggressive push to identify dropouts partially explains the sobering picture revealed in new N.C. Department of Public Instruction data.
“I'm still very concerned that we don't have higher numbers of our students graduating,” he said. “But I do think we have a more accurate reading than we did in the past.”
Since 2002, N.C. school systems have been tracking groups of ninth-graders through to graduation. The four-year graduation rate fell this year at every Mecklenburg high school measured except E.E. Waddell. Several suburban schools – Hopewell, North Mecklenburg and Providence – saw their rates drop by at least 10 percentage points. At Myers Park, which is routinely included on annual lists of the best American high schools, the drop-off was more than 5 percentage points.
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“It doesn't sound good,” said Louise Woods, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member. “It appears to me from this information that we're not getting better and might be getting worse.”
The steepest drop in CMS occurred at Garinger, where the four-year graduation rate plunged from 64.3 percent to 40.3 percent.
Principal Shelly Hinton, who is new to the school, said she would need to study the data before commenting.
The CMS figures bucked the statewide trend, which saw high schools' graduation rate rise slightly – from 69.5 to 69.9. Other large county school systems, including Wake and Guilford, did register declines, though.
Getting an accurate picture of dropouts and graduation rates hasn't been easy for CMS officials. Earlier this year, they found more than 600 dropouts had been falsely reported as still enrolled. Some had been coded as transfers when they had actually gone to community college or job training, which counts as a dropout.
New student record-keeping software and tighter auditing has helped, said Christopher Cobitz, director of assessment for CMS. He said the data released Thursday shows that CMS found about 1,000 new potential graduates for 2007-08.
“As we identify more of our students, we get our arms around the situation better and our reports become much more accurate,” Cobitz said, “which unfortunately makes it look like there was a major decline.”
Some observers renewed speculation about whether the school system's tough graduation requirements figure into the dropout problem. CMS requires students to complete 28 classes – eight more than the state requires. The school board is considering reducing the requirement, changing the way classes are scheduled, or both.
Woods, the former school board member, questioned whether more students are taking five years to finish. The state's figures showed that 77 percent of CMS students graduate when the extra year is taken into account; many high schools' five-year graduation rates inched upward this year rather than down.
Bill Anderson, a former CMS principal who leads the Communities in Schools dropout-prevention program, said complicated, and sometimes conflicting, state record-keeping rules have made it hard to get a good handle on the scope of the problem.
“We can sit here and talk all day about the dropout rate measurements, but what really matters is graduation rates,” he said. “I think Dr. Gorman's been very upfront about this issue… . He's not shying away from the reality that we have too many students not completing high school.”