Wake County school leaders were focused Wednesday on promoting the gains in the high school graduation rate as opposed to the lackluster news about test scores.
School leaders “crashed” Knightdale High School’s faculty meeting to talk with the media about how the eastern Wake school’s graduation rate rose 7.4 percentage points to 88.8 percent. Wake’s graduation rate also rose to 86.1 percent, putting the district back above the state average for the first time in several years.
“As a district, we’ve also moved up and once again surpassed the state average,” Merrill said. “That was a piece that bothered me a year or so ago.”
Merrill led the cheerleading of Knightdale High’s gains. He said Knightdale’s growth showed the goal of having at least 95 percent of students graduating by 2020 is possible.
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Merrill said Wake “would be bleeding Knightdale dry” for tips.
“You’re an example for the rest of the district,” Merrill said of Knightdale High. “And perhaps some envy and some jealousy, but that’s what comes with quick success, but well earned and well deserved.”
School board Chairwoman Chairwoman Christine Kushner continued the praise for Knightdale’s graduation progress. She went on to praise the community’s support of the school.
“Thank you for setting up an example for the county, as Dr. Merrill said,” Kushner said. “Setting up an example that our community can truly know what it takes to take a school in its arms and nurture it, grow it, and help its graduates.”
The praise comes after years of complaints from the Knightdale community that they weren’t getting enough support from the school system. The district formed the Knightdale Area Education Working Group, which has helped lead to things such as Knightdale High School redesigning its academic program.
Knightdale High Principal Jim Argent talked about how the school had, last year, identified 80 students “who were on the borderline as seniors of not being able to graduate.” School staff went the extra mile to help the students. Of those 80 seniors, 79 graduated in June. The last student graduated over the summer.
“We were there to support them, but the students made it happen,” Argent said. “They saw how much time and energy these incredible professionals were taking to help them. They saw an example and a model of true commitment in action.
“They saw people caring so deeply about what happens to them and their futures. So the students knew. They got it.”
Test scores were briefly touched during Merrill’s presentation. Wake’s passing rate on state exams rose slightly from 66.6 percent to 66.7 percent. But the percentage of schools meeting state growth targets fell 21 percentage points from 82 percent to 61 percent.
“As a district, our proficiency scores are not obviously where we want them to be,” Merrill said. “While some of our schools made solid gains in academic growth, not true for all schools, and we recognize that.”
Merrill also said that the district would release individual school progress reports on Thursday. He said those reports are more informative for families than reducing a year’s worth of work to a single letter grade as in the state’s A-F school performance grades.
After the official presentations, Merrill took questions from reporters. I asked if he was concerned about the drop in the schools meeting growth.
“The formula that calculates growth is fascinating, a lot of which we don’t understand,” Merrill answered. “But I do know that it changes annually and schools continue to get readjusted.
“Yes, I’m concerned that not as many schools met or exceeded growth and we will look into that. But the margin and the difference can be very, very slight between meeting and not meeting.
But Merrill was not happy with the question being focused on test scores and not graduation rates.
“But there are so many things that you could have asked us about positive data that we’re happy to share,” Merrill said on the high school auditorium stage in front of the crowd.
But when Merrill proceeded to talk a few minutes later with all the reporters, the questions continued to be focused on test scores. Some questions involved how Hodge Road Elementary School in Knightdale became the first school in the district to get an F grade.
Merrill again pointed to the progress reports that will be released Thursday showing different pieces of data for schools such as Hodge. He said that will tell parents more than a single letter grade.
“It’s a little disingenuous, I think, to share with parents a single grade,” Merrill said. “We wouldn’t expect to get a single grade at the end of a year on a student’s work all year long.
“To do the same for schools, it’s a strategy that doesn’t do a lot for us. We take a much bigger view of how results are occurring in our schools, and that’s what we share.”