Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools graduation rate hits new high

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ high school graduation rate set a new high in 2014, while the gap between white and minority students continued to narrow, the district said Wednesday.

The district’s rate hit 85.2 percent this year, the fifth straight year of increases. That is up from 81 percent in 2013.

CMS has now increased its graduation rate by more than 15 percentage points over the last five years. More than half of the district’s high schools now have a graduation rate above 90 percent.

“I am very proud of our school district,” Superintendent Heath Morrison said at a news conference at Providence High School. “We are moving the needle.”

CMS measures its graduation rate based on how many students enter high school as freshmen and graduate on time in four years. A student who graduated in five years would not be counted in the rate. The 2014 rate is the highest since the district began measuring its graduation rate this way in 2002.

Requirements changed

This year’s numbers also mark the second class of students that benefited from reduced requirements to graduate. Only 24 credits were required beginning with the 2013 graduating class, compared with 28 in previous years. The state requires 22.

Still disparities

The disparity in graduation rates between white and black students tightened, but it still persists. The graduation rate for white students hit 93 percent in 2014, compared with 82.5 percent for black students. That compares with the 91.1 percent and 76.6 percent spread last year.

The graduation rate for black students has increased by nearly 21 percentage points in five years. The rate for Hispanic students has gone up 20 percentage points, to 74.6 percent.

In 2010, the spread between graduation rates for white and black students was 23.3 points, and 30 points for Hispanics.

“That is the correct way in our opinion in how you close achievement gaps,” Morrison said. “Everyone gets better, but those who have lagged behind get better faster.”

State figures on Thursday

The statewide graduation figure will be released Thursday. Last year, North Carolina set a record high at 82.5 percent.

Frank Barnes, CMS chief accountability officer, said the overall increase at CMS can be attributed to a greater emphasis on working with individual students within schools.

Counselors spend time reviewing each student’s transcript to make sure they’re on track to graduate. Administrators reach out to struggling students who need support, and students are given more opportunities to make up credits if they’ve had a setback.

“This is work that has really been a district focus,” Barnes said. “We start early in a high school student’s career and throughout that high school student’s career to make sure they’re taking, succeeding, in the right courses.”

At each school

School-by-school data within CMS will be released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction on Thursday.

But West Charlotte High Principal John Wall said Wednesday his school is again expecting a jump in graduation rates. Last year, West Charlotte’s rate jumped 15 percentage points, to 71 percent.

The school has used grants to put more personnel in schools to work individually with students.

Carol Alexander, dean of West Charlotte High, also described how the school has used the Project LIFT Academy, a special arrangement that lets students complete coursework on their own schedule, to lure more people back to the classroom. Project LIFT is the $55 million public-private partnership that aims to help West Charlotte and its feeder schools.

CMS pushing students

CMS schools have also started pushing students toward graduation earlier in their academic careers, and focused more effort on individual students.

At Independence High School, administrators put together a massive document each year for seniors known as the Stoplight Report. It compiles information on how students are progressing toward graduation, and administrators, teachers, staff and counselors divide up the list of students who are falling behind. Each is responsible for 15 to 20, Assistant Principal Amy Mims said, and they work with each student individually to get caught up.

Providence High School Principal Tracy Harrill said efforts at her school start the minute students get on campus.

“You can’t focus on graduation if you start when they are seniors. You have missed three years of opportunity to work with that child,” she said.

Harrill said in one instance last year, a struggling student needed a first-period class to graduate but had trouble getting to school on time. One counselor made it a point to help him.

“The counselor decided it would be her job to call him and wake him up,” Harrill said. “It got to be where she would call and say, ‘Good morning sunshine, it’s time to get up and come to school.’ ”

What comes next

The CMS announcement Wednesday marks an improvement over the record-high graduation rate the district posted last year. At the time, it was the only year in eight years of tracking the figures that more than 80 percent of students had graduated in four years.

Despite the improvement, Morrison also pointed out that there is more to be done. One in 6 CMS students does not graduate with his or her class.

“Most school districts would have been satisfied with our graduation success from several years ago. We’re not satisfied,” Morrison said. “If we’re not 100 percent, we have more work to do.”

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