Wake Ed

Wake County school board debates 95-percent graduation goal

The Wake County school system is flirting again with the idea of making it a goal of having nearly every student graduate from high school.

The new draft goal calls for at least a 95-percent graduation rate by 2020, which would be a stretch considering that the current rate is 82.9 percent. Some school leaders call it a bold, aspirational goal while others say it’s not realistic.

It’s in many ways a repeat of the discussions the school board had in 2008 when it set the goal then of having a 100-percent graduation rate by 2014.

Initially, the board in 2008 had looked at setting the goal at 95 percent. But it was raised to 100 percent because of concerns it would give the impression that the district was giving up on some students graduating.

The 2008 goal read that “WCPSS students will demonstrate high academic growth; by 2014, all students will graduate on-time prepared to compete globally.” That goal combined the graduation rate with growth on state exams.

Jump ahead to 2014, where the district is working on a five-year strategic plan. The draft goal says that “by 2020, WCPSS will annually graduate at least 95% of its students ready for higher education, career, and other life long opportunities.”

To put the goal in perspective, the North Carolina school district with the highest four-year graduation rate is Avery County at 95 percent. Avery County had a cohort of 160 students enter ninth grade in 2010 compared to 11,011 in Wake.

The board got an update on the draft strategic plan at Tuesday’s work session. The final draft will be presented in December with the vote potentially in January.

“It’s very audacious,” school board vice chairman Tom Benton said of the draft goal. “It’s something that is succinct enough to be measurable. It’s something that I think if we present it in the right way, that it can rally the community.”

Superintendent Jim Merrill told the board that his 30-member teacher advisory group unanimously supported the draft goal.

“They were reflecting on the fact that when there’s something very specific and very clear, everybody gets lined up on that and they can remember it,” Merrill said.

But school board member Jim Martin said he had to be a “naysayer” on the 95-percent goal.

“I’m not a big fan of this goal statement because of the 95 percent,” Martin said. “The percent graduation rate is in many, many vision statements across the nation. No district like ours has ever reached this so then the question you have to ask is, ‘So what are we going to do differently when nobody has been able to fulfill this?’”

Martin also raised the belief that other North Carolina school systems have artificially higher graduation rates than Wake because they use lower standards for awarding a diploma. He pointed to a recent school board committee discussion when it was noted that Charlotte-Mecklenburg had a higher graduation rate of 85.1 percent but Wake still has higher average SAT and ACT scores.

“I’ll take the higher SAT scores, higher ACT scores over graduation rates any day,” Martin said. “We can have this graduation rate tomorrow if we want to.”

“Everybody likes some hard number to target, but it’s meaningless in terms of real education and I’d rather us focus on real education,” Martin also said. “So I challenge us to do a more challenging goal statement that actually has legs rather than a statement that we could meet tomorrow.

It can mean nothing. It can mean something. That 95 percent is buzz word, propaganda. It’s not getting at the substance of what we need to be about, and that’s what I’d love to see us work on.”

School board member Keith Sutton said he can see where Martin, a chemistry professor at N.C. State, is coming from because of his training as a scientist. But Sutton encouraged his colleagues to be bold.

“That’s the district’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech,’” Sutton said. “That’s saying that’s the mountaintop and that’s sort of where we want to be and we may not get there, but that’s where we want all students to be.”