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As CMS graduation gap fades, a troubling skills gap remains

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had an 88 percent on-time graduation rate for 2015, and at North Meck (shown here) it was 92 percent.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had an 88 percent on-time graduation rate for 2015, and at North Meck (shown here) it was 92 percent. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Ten years ago, when a judge accused four Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools of academic genocide, roughly 40 percent of their students were dropping out.

Three years ago, when Project LIFT philanthropists kicked off a $55 million turnaround project focused on West Charlotte High, that school’s graduation rate was only 56 percent.

This year, West Charlotte’s graduation rate hit 76 percent. Garinger and West Meck, the other two remaining “genocide” schools, were at 89 percent and 84 percent, respectively (the fourth closed a few years ago).

North Carolina’s 85 percent graduation rate for 2015 was an all-time high. CMS topped that by three points, at 88 percent. All groups in CMS have made steady gains over the last five years, with the biggest improvement among the black, Hispanic and low-income teens who were leaving school at the highest rates.

That’s some very good news. Young adults with diplomas have a better chance than dropouts of getting a job and staying out of trouble.

And yet ... when you dig deeper into the test results, you can see that not all CMS diplomas mean the same thing.

There are schools like Ardrey Kell, Hough, Myers Park and Providence where ACT exams and state tests in English, math and biology indicate that the overwhelming majority of graduates leave with the skills to thrive in college or land a skilled job.

And there are schools like West Charlotte, Garinger, West Meck and Harding where, if the scores are any indication, very few are ready.

I’m sure you’ve sussed out the pattern. The first group of schools serves the more affluent neighborhoods, where most families push college and students traditionally score well on exams. The second group serves neighborhoods where many families struggle, fewer parents went to college, and students, most of them black and Hispanic, traditionally lag on measures of school success.

In other words, even as the graduation gap fades, a skills gap remains.

Superintendent Ann Clark and her top staff acknowledge the reality and the importance of that gap. But they say progress on graduation rates sets a model for, as Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes put it Wednesday, “closing gaps and raising the tide for all.”

How did change happen?

Skeptics may scoff at the numbers. It’s worth noting that on more than one occasion, CMS has rolled out dramatic gains only to have to retract its data later. For years I’ve been quick to call “too good to be true” when I see it.

I don’t see it here.

Bogus numbers tend to be dramatic and poorly explained. The CMS graduation gains have built steadily and are in sync with statewide trends.

Across the state, online and in-school programs have expanded options for students who fall behind to catch up on credits at their own pace.

Starting in 2013, CMS students could graduate with 24 credits, down from 28. (A student who passes all courses for four years has 32, and the state minimum is 22.)

For the last few years, CMS high school counselors have been under orders to review each student’s transcript. If there’s a gap that could derail graduation, they step in to make sure students know they have options to stay on track.

High schools have emphasized career themes, from culinary programs to high-tech manufacturing, designed to help teens see that staying in school has concrete benefits.

And countless community groups, donors and volunteers have pitched in. Clark was quick to give them credit at Wednesday’s news conference. Now, she says, it’s time for CMS and the community to rally for the next push.

Think beyond the diploma

This year, Clark said, all high school principals have been instructed to copy a move from the JROTC program, known for high graduation rates among its cadets.

That move? Make sure every student has sketched out a plan for what happens after graduation. Most high-paying jobs require some additional education, and counselors can help students prepare and find financial aid.

Clark has launched a push to build literacy skills, which ranges from teaching young children to read to helping teens read complex material, write clearly and communicate professionally. She’s pushing the district’s 18,000-plus employees to commit an hour a week to volunteering with one student, and working with at-risk seniors is one option.

Next year’s goal is to crack 90 percent for a districtwide graduation rate – and for those graduates to leave CMS with meaningful, marketable skills.

It’s a daunting task. So often, the state’s annual data report offers a grim reminder of how hard it is to break cycles of poverty and failure. This year’s brought its share of heartbreak for folks who have given their all and come up short.

But it also brings hope that sometimes things change for the better.

Are they ready?

Here’s what state exams show about student skills statewide and in Mecklenburg. The first percentage indicates how many performed at grade level. The second indicates that students are on track to be ready for college or careers (it corresponds to grade-level scores two years ago).

High school biology, math I and English II

NC: 58 percent proficient, 48 percent ready.

CMS: 63 percent proficient, 54 percent ready.

Reading (Grades 3-8)

NC: 56 percent proficient, 45 percent ready.

CMS: 56 percent proficient, 46 percent ready.

Math (Grades 3-8)

NC: 52 percent proficient, 44 percent ready.

CMS: 57 percent proficient, 49 percent ready.

Science (Grades 5 and 8)

NC: 69 percent proficient, 59 percent ready.

CMS: 71 percent proficient, 62 ready.

How Meck schools fared

Here’s how 160 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and 18 charter schools in Mecklenburg County fared on 2014-15 state letter grades.

CMS

A/A+: 19 schools (12 percent)

B: 50 schools (31 percent)

C: 44 schools (28 percent)

D: 37 schools (23 percent)

F: 10 schools (6 percent)

Charters

A/A+: Three schools (17 percent)

B: Four schools (22 percent)

C: Two schools (11 percent)

D: Four schools (22 percent)

F: Five schools (28 percent)

A+ schools

CMS neighborhood schools: Ballantyne, Elon Park, Huntersville, Polo Ridge and Providence Spring elementaries; Providence and Hough high schools.

CMS magnets: Piedmont Middle.

Charters: Community School of Davidson, Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy.

F schools

CMS neighborhood schools: Sterling Elementary; Ashley Park, Bruns, Byers, Druid Hills, Reid Park and Westerly Hills preK-8 schools; Eastway, King and Sedgefield middle schools.

Charters: Community Charter School, Kennedy, Crossroads High, Charlotte Choice, Charlotte Learning Academy.

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