Garner Cleveland Record

Wake school leaders say graduation rate must increase

Some Wake County school leaders are calling it “unacceptable” and a “wake-up call” that the school district’s graduation rate lags the state average, but others say the situation is less dire than it may seem.

Figures released last week show that the graduation rate for both Wake and North Carolina increased this past school year. But the state rate shot up more sharply, putting it at 82.5 percent, compared with 81 percent in Wake. It continues a trend over the past seven years in which the state’s graduation rate has risen by 14.2 percentage points, while Wake’s rate has dropped 1.6 percentage points overall.

“It is unacceptable for us to be below the state average in anything with the human and financial resources we have,” school board member Tom Benton said Wednesday. “We’ve got to find out how we can do better.”

Board members agree that more must be done to raise Wake’s graduation rate. But disagreements over the role that student assignment should play in the solution mirror the differences that have split the nine-member board since 2009.

School board member Kevin Hill said the results are a sign that Wake, the state’s largest school district, hasn’t done what’s needed to maintain its progress on getting more students to graduate from high school.

“I don’t want to make excuses,” he said. “We need to improve our graduation rate. I know our teachers work as hard as they can. We have high expectations for our students.”

Hill and Benton said that they’re looking to new Superintendent Jim Merrill to come up with suggestions for raising the graduation rate. School administrators were short on details Wednesday, saying they’re working with schools to ensure that they’re getting the support they need.

School board Chairman Keith Sutton said the necessary steps will become clearer during the next few weeks as leaders review audits of programs such as services for academically gifted students and the new academic-themed schools.

Grad rates a ‘wake-up call’

For decades, Wake school leaders have contended that the district is among the best in the state and potentially in the nation. But in recent years, some state test results and now the graduation rate show that Wake is hard-pressed to make those kinds of claims.

“We’re still doing fairly well,” Sutton said. “It’s not a cause for crisis or cause for alarm. The shocking thing, I think, is we’re used to seeing Wake above the state average.”

Hill said it’s no coincidence that the overall drop in Wake’s graduation rate has come during the same time that fewer resources have led to larger class sizes. According to state figures, Wake is spending 5.3 percent less per student than in the 2008-09 school year.

But board member John Tedesco said that it’s an excuse to cite funding when the rest of the state has seen similar challenges while still raising the graduation rate.

Tedesco said the new figures should be a “wake-up call” for Wake. He said it especially looks bad considering that Wake’s student demographics should mean it has a higher graduation rate than the state average.

“We’re not keeping up with the growth in the rest of the state,” he said. “They’re passing us by. We can’t go back to the old ways and say, ‘We’re the great Wake County school system.’ ”

Focus on the hard-to-reach

Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh think tank that favors small government, said one place to look is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, where the graduation rate rose 4.6 percentage points last year to tie Wake at 81 percent.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg abandoned busing for diversity in 2002 and instead, with the help of more funding than in Wake, has focused on putting more resources into high-poverty schools. The Democratic majority on the Wake school board voted in May to restore the goal of limiting the percentages of low-income students at schools that the former Republican majority had eliminated.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system had a higher graduation rate than Wake among the majority of subgroups, including economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic and white students. For instance, the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students in Charlotte was 74.5 percent, compared with 64.9 percent in Wake.

“They’re obviously doing something that Wake County is not,” Stoops said of the Charlotte schools. “They should be looked at as a school district that is doing something more with some of the hardest-to-reach students.”

Tedesco, the board member, said he agreed, saying Charlotte has shown they’re doing more than Wake to help the most vulnerable students.

But Benton, the board member, pointed to another area of difference: Last year’s was the first graduating class in Charlotte-Mecklenburg allowed to graduate with 24 credits, compared with 28 in previous years. Most Wake high schools require 26 credits to graduate.

“You’ve got to compare apples to apples,” Benton said. “How many more would graduate in Wake if you dropped the requirements by two credits?”