The Will
October 13, 2010

The high school graduation rate is the most important indicator of success in public education today. More than report card grades, state test scores, or SAT results, the graduation rate reflects our ability to keep students engaged in school and learning so that they can successfully advance to the next grade level and eventually earn a high school diploma. On Wednesday, Oct. 13, representatives from 20 high schools and 10 school districts were recognized at a ceremony in Raleigh for posting some of the highest four-year cohort graduation rates in the state for the 2009-10 school year. These achievements represent an important victory for students, educators, parents and community members in these schools and districts and set a standard to which we all should aspire.

At the state level, from 2006 to 2010, the graduation rate improved from 68.3 to 74.2 percent. All of this progress is significant, but it should also remind us all that there is more work to do. North Carolinians should not be satisfied until every student graduates high school prepared for college and a career.

So what must we do to achieve this important goal?

  1. Start early. By continuing to support our statewide academic Pre-K program that has been proven to make a difference for our youngest, at-risk learners, we ensure that every child enters kindergarten prepared to succeed. Studies have shown More at Four substantially accelerates learning for children and the most vulnerable children experience the highest rates of growth. These evaluations also show that these gains are sustained through the early elementary years. You cannot put a dollar value on the benefits this program provides annually for tens of thousands of students in this state. That is why the General Assembly should establish a funding stream for More at Four consistent with the K-12 public school funding model. We have made great strides with funding for public kindergarten and we should do the same for Pre-K.

  2. Pay attention to trends in student absences, even in the early and middle grades. Research conducted by Johns Hopkins University concluded that chronic absenteeism is a leading factor when targeting students at risk for dropping out. Half the students so identified by sixth grade ended up dropping out in high school, while 75 percent identified by ninth grade ended up dropping out. Parents need to make sure children go to school every day and educators need to learn to identify and address excessive absences as a warning sign of a future dropout. Classrooms should be outlets where elementary and middle school students want to go to engage all of the energy and curiosity they bring to school every day.

  3. Extend learning beyond the school year by fighting reading loss during the summer. A Harvard University study that examined different approaches to summer reading found that voluntary summer reading programs can work—but they work best when adults and teachers help students choose skill-appropriate books. Durham READS, for example, is a partnership program between MetaMetrics and the local Communities In Schools chapter in Durham County that provided students with below-grade Lexile measures eight free books targeted to each reader's Lexile range and topic interests to read during the summer. Evaluation of the program has shown that, the more books participants read, the more they improve their reading ability during time away from the classroom. Yet, expanding the amount of time some students spend learning should not just be accomplished with summer reading programs. State and local leaders must also consider ways to extend the school year for all K-3 students who are struggling.

  4. Change the ninth grade experience for all students. We know that this entry point into high school is also the grade in which many students fail or drop out. This is not surprising considering that this is a pivotal year where students often find themselves struggling to navigate large, impersonal, and competitive environments. In response to this issue, many schools have implemented Ninth Grade Academies that provide incoming freshmen additional resources and personalized support to overcome transitional obstacles. A study conducted by the NCDPI in 2008 found that from 2001-2007, schools with Ninth Grade Academies had an average non-promotion rate of 15 percent in comparison to the 22 percent state average. Dropout rates also indicated a significant change: 6.6 percent for the Ninth Grade Academies compared to a state average of 12.5 percent in schools with traditional ninth grade programs. This Academy model is one all high schools in our state should implement for incoming freshmen.

  5. Redesign all high schools that have graduation rates under 70 percent. As my Career-Ready Commission affirmed in its report released this past April, there are excellent examples of high schools in North Carolina that consistently post graduation rates above 95 percent. Schools with low graduation rates can learn a lot from these schools, many of which are early colleges, redesigned or career cluster high schools such as the Highland School of Technology in Gaston County, or Weaver Academy for the Performing and Visual Arts and Advanced Technology in Guilford County. Both of these schools feature an integrated curriculum based on career clusters, an expanded system of student support, strong connections to business and industry and work experience requirements for students. These schools do not provide direct paths into specific types of jobs, but instead, enable students to expand options available to them after graduation because they will have the skills needed to be successful in a variety of careers.

  6. Change our school accountability system to focus on how students are doing each day rather than just how students perform on state tests at the end of a course or a school year. State Board of Education members and the NCDPI staff are currently working on a system that will produce academic growth charts to outline each student's academic progress throughout the year. This type of chart, much like a growth chart you would get from a pediatrician, will provide teachers and parents an opportunity to, as Barney Fife says, "nip it in the bud" and address issues a student may be struggling with before he or she gets too far behind. This system also will help carry out the Governor's "Career and College: Ready, Set, Go!" initiative.

  7. Remember that educators cannot do this alone. Research clearly connects family involvement to student success. Active, meaningful engagement from parents and others helps schools boost student achievement and produce graduates who are prepared to be productive, globally-competitive citizens. That is why our students need to be surrounded with adults from outside their school community, such as family members and mentors from faith-based organizations, community associations and nonprofits groups, who can provide support, guidance, and council.

Just as we all should play a role in supporting students, every government official, superintendent, principal, teacher, parent and community member must make increasing the graduation rate a priority. The loss of human talent and potential and the cost of high school drop outs to our society are far too great for us to not to direct substantial time, energy and resources to working together to address and solve this crisis.

I'm looking forward to the day that we no longer have to hold a special awards ceremony to recognize districts and individual schools for high graduation rates, but instead we can post beside the seat belt signs in every single county across our state a sign that reads "North Carolina's Graduation Rate - 100 Percent."




June St. Clair Atkinson
State Superintendent