06/21/09 — County grad rate up, but concerns still remain

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County grad rate up, but concerns still remain

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 21, 2009 2:00 AM

Local leaders say they are encouraged by gains county schools continue to make in their graduation rates, but remain worried that some schools are still struggling.

According to 2008 data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, as a whole, the county's graduation rate of 72.1 percent is slightly above the state average of 70.3 percent and trails only Wake, 78.8 percent, and Johnston counties, 75.1, when compared to eight surrounding counties.

The 2009 graduation data should be available within the next few months, said Dr. Ed Wilson, chairman of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce's Educational Council and former president of Wayne Community College. Wilson said the council may look at private school numbers as well.

The council is comprised of county residents who have shown an interest in pooling efforts and leveraging the business community to improve school outcomes, he said.

Graduation rates were one of the first issues the newly-formed council wanted to focus on, Wilson said.

"What we tried to do is talk about the positive things that have been happening and the fact that we do really well compared to other folks in this region," Wilson said. "We have three high schools that do not perform as well. We have some on the top end."

The top three schools are Rosewood, 89.2 percent, Eastern Wayne, 85.6 percent, and Charles B. Aycock, 80.7 percent.

Goldsboro has the lowest rate at 47.7 percent. Southern Wayne's rate was 66.6 and Spring Creek's was 73.6 percent.

"I was a little surprised with Goldsboro High School's rate as low as it was and Southern Wayne as well," Wilson said.

The graduation rate is based on the number of students who enter the ninth grade together and graduate four years later. However, the actual rate is not that simple, Wilson said.

"The thing about this is that we wanted to try and explain that there are other things involved -- you can't account for all of these kids," he said. "You don't whether they have graduated because when they move you don't have the data. The kids that go back to Mexico, there is no sign of them. They rarely request records.

"Some of the military folks when they leave they are not sure where they are going to end up with their kids in school. They may take records with them, but there is no way to keep those folks out of the (graduation) numbers."

Students who leave the county and are unaccounted for cannot be removed from the county's reporting of potential dropouts unless the county receives a transcript from the receiving school district.

"Accuracy and consistency across the state and nation are important," Wilson said. "But our schools are being penalized in some ways. We cannot force parents to tell us where their child is going, nor can we force a student from choosing to earn a wage and instead complete high school at Wayne Community College. However, we need to be consistent and we believe we have a system in place that compares apples to apples as we move forward.

"We were able to locate some data on kids who transferred to college and that pops the rate up to 80 percent. Nobody is happy about an 80 percent graduation rate, but at least it is more characteristic of what the real situation is."

The rate climbs even higher when other certificates on par with diplomas are included, he said.

Students earning an adult high school diploma or GED through Wayne Community College, certificates for completing course of study (exceptional children students) or students who have the credits to graduate, but did not pass the competency test, cannot be included in the county's graduation reporting.

"Those who graduate with a high school diploma at Wayne Community College are not considered either even though the diplomas are signed by me and Dr. Steven Taylor (Wayne County Public Schools superintendent)," Wilson said.

"I was real pleased to see three on the top end," he said. "Add another eight percent for those who transfer and you have them up into the 90s which is good because you can't run everybody down.

"If we knew where they all were at, then we would know what the real graduation rate is."

There is, he said, a move under way on the national level through No Child Left Behind to create a database of students who move.

"If that happens you could find out, but you will never know about the kids that go back to Mexico. Some of our (military) folks go overseas," Wilson said. "The best scenario would be if they transfer to an in-state school."

Students with disabilities who do not graduate receive a certificate of completion, but do not meet requirements for graduation are considered dropouts, Wilson said.

Wilson said efforts were made through the Eastern Chamber of Commerce to get the state to review how graduation rates are calculated and "to see if some of the mystery can be taken out."

"It was fought by the Department of Public Instruction and so it didn't pass," he said.

Another factor being examined is what Wilson calls a "significant number of students," 62.9 percent, on free or reduced lunches.

"That indicates some level of poverty," he said. "That leads us to believe that 62 percent of those students are coming from some disadvantaged economic background and that has an impact.

"Obviously there are concerns about people not graduating. There are lot of activities, the Early Middle College High School and the career academies. Hopefully over the course of time it (graduation rates) will look better.

"We are working on a career awareness program for middle school students, a career fair kind of approach. We all know they begin to drop out, they don't physically leave, but they begin to drop out at those times."

Wilson said much credit is due to the county schools system for its efforts.

The Wayne Occupational Readiness Keys for Success is another important effort, Steve Hicks, chamber executive director, said in a prepared statement.

"Wayne County Public Schools are a leader in the 'works-ready' movement in North Carolina, giving every student graduating with a high school diploma the opportunity to earn a Career Readiness Certificate," he said. "Workforce preparedness is about more than having good workers available. It is about creating career paths for students to let them know there are great opportunities right here in Wayne County."

Wilson added, "We are only on the first step of a long-term vision for education in our county -- meaningful change does not happen overnight and quick remedies disappear just as quickly.

"If we want to improve struggling schools, ensure educational equity across the county and create real opportunity for our students and county, our parents, leaders, businesses and educators all must share the burden."