Point of view

Concentrate on minority graduation

November 24, 2009 

— Busing our students is not the only way - or necessarily the best way - to make sure North Carolina is achieving equality in its public schools. We do not have to look farther than the Wake County school system to understand this.

Wake County has redistricted its students for years, and although individual schools may be more diverse, the aggregate graduation percentages for high school minority students do not compare well with those of other counties. Last year, Wake County graduated 63.4 percent of its black students and 51.1 percent of its Hispanic students who had entered the ninth grade for the first time in the fall of 2005. Consequently, among the state's 115 school districts, Wake County ranks 69th in graduating its black students and 85th in graduating its Hispanic students.

Guilford County Schools (GCS) also buses its students, but through investing additional and appropriately targeted resources into its partnership with Communities In Schools, the district has moved closer to achieving graduation parity for its minority students, even though the minority demographic percentages in both counties are similar.

Communities In Schools of North Carolina is part of the national CIS organization, the largest and most successful dropout prevention nonprofit in America. Last year, the CIS network in North Carolina worked with more than 163,000 children and youth across the state, empowering 98 percent of its high school students to remain in school.

In Guilford County the partnership with CIS has helped to raise the graduation rates for black and Hispanic students to 73.8 percent and 68.4 percent, ranking it 26th in the state in graduating its black students and 33rd in graduating its Hispanic students. The four GCS high schools where CIS is concentrating its efforts (at the request of the school district) achieved a combined graduation rate of 77.2 percent for black students and 71.3 percent for Hispanic students.

This is remarkable considering that the statewide graduation rate for all students was 71.7 percent for the same school year. Also noteworthy is the fact that the CIS network across North Carolina achieved these results at an average per-student cost of less than $200 per year.

Last spring, the Wake County school board decided no longer to fund the CIS site coordinators who worked in 13 of the district's schools - not because CIS wasn't working but because of revenue shortfalls. Now that the school board appears to be on the verge of ending busing and returning to community schools, the need for CIS services is even greater. For a county with a per-capita income that ranks in the top 4 percent of 3,141 U.S. counties, parishes and city/counties, investing less than $200 annually on each of our at-risk students is surely not too much to ask.

CIS's success in working with at-risk students is undeniable, and Guilford County is but one example of how the CIS model works when given the opportunity. When community resources are coordinated, accessible and tailored to address academic and social service needs, all students can - and will - achieve academically.

Consequently, it really becomes a matter of choice for the Wake County school board and the county commissioners. If the idea is to stop funding policies and programs that don't work - and one can only assume that is why busing may be on the chopping block - then take freed-up revenue or create additional revenue and pay for what does. All of Wake County's students deserve nothing less.

Mike Stephens is chief operating officer of Communities In Schools of North Carolina.

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