Lexington, N.C. — Seven years ago, fewer than half of the students enrolled in Lexington City Schools graduated within four years.
Last June, 166 students – nearly 85 percent of the student body – took home high school diplomas.
"There's not a silver bullet," said Kristi Thornhill, who teaches biology and environmental science at the city's high school. A graduate of Lexington Senior High who has taught at the school for 21 years, Thornhill says there is no one thing that helped turn graduation rates around in this community between Greensboro and Charlotte. Rather, she and other educators say a variety of strategies combined with a renewed focus on getting to know the needs of individual students helped the district make progress.
"We talk about students among ourselves. We discuss their strengths and weaknesses. We try to identify their problems before they become larger issues," she said.
Statewide graduation rates have risen steadily from 68.3 percent in 2005-06 school year to 82.5 percent for the school year that ended in June. That change reflects steady improvement, but critics say it still suggests one in five students entering schools as a freshman won't graduate with their peers four years later.
However, it's worth noting the numbers aren't a perfect measure of what's going on in the schools. The graduation rate for a particular year looks at the cohort of students who were freshmen four years earlier and measures how many graduated. Students who leave school in order to pursue GED high school equivalencies are counted as dropouts. So are students who are only one or two course short of completing their diplomas and return over the summer or the next year to finish their work.
Michael Maher, director of professional education at North Carolina State University's College of Education, say rising graduation rates are good news for the state, particularly when looking at the growth in graduation rates for sub-groups such as African-American or disabled students, for which graduation rates are rising.
As for why rates are on the rise, Maher said there are probably as many different reasons as there are school districts.
"They're a function of any number of issues," he said, some of them unexpected. For example, Maher said that uncertain job prospects may be keeping some students in class.
"I wonder if some of this isn't a product of the economy," he said. "North Carolina was among the hardest hit of any states in terms of unemployment. Students who might otherwise have dropped out may have seen they don't have a whole lot of options."
When language is a barrier
Educators are encouraged that not only is the overall graduation rate rising, but that graduation rates for different sub-groups tracked by the Department of Public Instruction are also improving. Graduation rates for African-American, Hispanic and disabled students rose, as did rates for students from low income "economically disadvantaged" families.
However, the graduation rate for students with "limited English proficiency" has dropped since 2006. During the last academic year, fewer than half of seniors labeled as LEP graduated on time. Typically, LEP students come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken, and they have not mastered the language well enough to excel in the classroom. When they enter school, they are given a test to determine exactly how much of the language they know.
That test, said Charles Aiken, who oversees services for students with limited English skills in Chatham County, examines whether a child knows everyday language as well as specialty words needed to navigate math, science and other specific subjects. Even simple terms such as "odd" numbers or "equals," which have different meanings in other areas of speech, can pose a problem for students both trying to learn the language and a particular subject.
"This is something that even 10 or 15 years ago we might not have understood. A teacher might have said, 'I don't understand the problem, I had a clear conversation with that student just today,'" Aiken said. But being able to speak "playground" English and "academic" English are not the same thing.
The number of LEP students is small when compared with graduates overall, but it is a fast-growing population. Graduation statistics in 2006 showed 566 seniors designated as LEP. In 2013, 2,813, or about 2.6 percent, of the state's 109,807 fourth-year high school students were designated as LEP.
In Chatham County, Aiken said, most students with limited English are Spanish speakers, although there are some Norwegian speakers in the Chatham system right now. Larger systems such as Wake County have to educate students who speak dozens of different languages at home.
And students who are struggling to learn English often have other challenges to overcome.
"Our classes are more and more diverse every year," said Jen Painter, who teaches English as a Second Language at Jordan High School in Durham County. A growing numbers of her students, she said, are refugees from Southeast Asian countries and typically have had uneven access to schooling of any type over their lifetime. And many students struggling to learn English come from very low income families and have to work as they attend high school to help pay for rent and food.
Durham County's overall graduation rate has climbed from 68.8 percent in 2006 to nearly 80 percent in 2013. But graduation rates for LEP students have lagged, even as that population has grown from 13 LEP seniors in 2006 to 138 seniors in 2013. Last year, just over half of those 138 seniors designated as having limited English proficiency graduated with their peers.
Painter said teachers have to adjust the examples they use when teaching students still learning English. For example, American pop culture references will mean little to students who have lived overseas most of their lives.
"At the same time you're teaching the content, you have to keep the language of whatever that subject is at the forefront," Painter said.
Aiken, in Chatham County, said other strategies involve helping parents become more proficient in English, using a mix of languages in certain settings, and reaching out to parents who may be bilingual to help in the classroom, he said.
Federal and state guidelines say that school districts should aim to get students up to speed and out of special assistance programs within five years, Aiken said. But research shows it can take as many as seven to 10 years to truly master a new language, particularly the nuances of academic material.
"We're under a paradox there between what we know about language acquisition versus what we're under a mandate to do," he said.
Wake rates slip
The state changed how it calculated graduation rates in 2006. Before then, North Carolina relied on a five-year graduation rate. When the state switched to a four-year measure, graduation rates dropped across the state. Since then, all but one of the state's school systems has seen their graduation rates climb.
Only Wake County saw a dip in graduation rates between 2006 and 2013. Statistically, that less-than-2 percent drop isn't significant, said N.C. State's Maher. And it's worth noting that Wake County's graduation rate has remained consistently high compared with other school systems. Wake schools didn't drop in performance; the rest of North Carolina caught up.
Still, with a graduation rate slightly under the state average and suffering a dip over time, Wake County school officials have taken note.
"We can do better," said Wake County Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner, saying that administrators are looking at the data and getting ready to recommend policies that might help improve graduation rates district-wide.
Kushner said she would like to see the district put more effort into middle school and ensure that students make a smooth transition from middle school to high school.
"We've known for a while that those transitional times are an issue we ought to address," she said.
Helping students make the jump from middle school to high school, where they are expected to move from class to class and be responsible for more of their own learning, has been a key in turning around Lexington City Schools' graduation rates, teachers there say.
"That transition from middle school to high school was where we lost a lot of students," said Barbara Pendergrass, a longtime vocational education teacher who is teaching business and marketing classes this year.
Efforts to prepare students for the transition begin in middle school, she said, and continue in ninth grade. As in some Wake County schools, Lexington's high school has a freshman academy that gives new high school students extra direction.
Other dropout prevention efforts involve bringing in volunteers and mentors from the community.
"The students are hearing the same thing in the community and from mentors outside of school as they are from the staff," said Rick Kriesky, Lexington's superintendent.
Despite having seen graduation rates rise, Kriesky said his district still hasn't met its goal of having 90 percent of students graduate with 90 percent or more accepted to two- or four-year college programs and zero percent requiring remediation once they reach college.
This question of what high school graduates are able to do once they leave the K-12 system is a pressing one. In a February 2013 report, the UNC system reported it spent about $1.8 million in the 2012 academic year for remedial courses to bring 3,900 students across the 221,010-student system up to speed on coursework they should have mastered in high school.
And a recent report by the company that produces the the ACT college admission exam show less than a fifth of North Carolina high school juniors who took the test last year have the skills needed to succeed in college or a career.
Maher said ACT scores may rise as students adjust to new curricula deployed across the state last year that more closely tracks with skills the ACT measures. Other test scores, he said, give the state more reason for optimism.
"In effect, all this year's (ACT scores) do is provide a baseline," said Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Initiative, a nonprofit that helps school systems develop new education models. What will be important, he said, is to track whether ACT scores go up over time.
In the meantime, he said, parents and school leaders should be encouraged that graduation rates continue to rise.
"It's not just a question of what the rate is," he said. "Look what has happened in the last decade. Clearly, something is happening and something very positive is happening for public schools."
Wake County in the spotlight
In Wake County, Maher said, graduation rates for individual high schools are more revealing than the district's overall graduation rate.
Kushner agreed, saying improvement for Wake County would come "at the school level." The board, she said, needs to do a better job of focusing on giving schools the tools they need to help principals. Principals, in turn, "need to know what kids they need to push on."
No Wake County high school had a graduation rate under 75 percent for 2013. Some schools, including Panther Creek and Holly Springs high schools, had graduation rates over 90 percent.
"We've tried really hard to target the students who are having challenges," said Timothy Locklair, principal at Holly Springs.
Holly Springs is a relatively new high school. Locklair said one of the most unique aspects of the school is that all 2,400 students have lunch at the same time. This provides a common hour for students to get involved in club activities or get help with academic problems. Students, he said, like having that lunch hour to socialize and pursue their interests.
"We try to make it very inconvenient to fail," Locklair said.
Other schools pose more of a puzzle for the district. William G. Enloe High School, for example, is a well-regarded magnet school that draws students with high-quality arts programs. But that school's graduation rate dropped 11.4 percentage points from a graduation rate of just over 90 percent in 2006 to a graduation rate of 78.7 percent in 2013.
"They have more (Advanced Placement) classes than any other school in Wake County," said Kristyn Turaj, an Enloe parent and PTSA president. Her daughter, who was enthusiastic about the dance program, is a graduate of the school. Her son is a junior now and active in the television production classes.
In general, it seems that schools with higher graduation rates seem to have smaller populations of kids designated as having "limited English proficiency" and fewer students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of students from low wealth families. Roughly a third of Enloe's students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, according to district statistics.
Neither Enloe’s principal nor the area superintendent who oversees the school returned phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Habit, of the New Schools Initiative, said his group works closely with Wake County Schools, although not Enloe specifically. Generally, he said, students tend not to finish their diplomas because they feel "disengaged" from the school work, and then they fall behind.
"In a conventional high school, it is more challenging to meet the individual needs of students to ensure that they will persist (to graduation)," he said.
Wake County, he said, is experimenting with other types of high schools that might provide methods to drive up graduation rates. He pointed to the early college on N.C. State's campus, and early college high school at Wake Med focused on health careers.
In fact, Wake's Early College of Health has a graduation rate over 95 percent, although it has a relatively small student body of just over 50 students.
Habit also praised Wake's new Rolesville High School, which was built to accommodate more than 2,000 students but is broken up into 16 pods, eschewing hallways in favor of common areas where students can work together. Older schools, even those with aggressive AP and International Baccalaureate programs like Enloe, will have to learn from these newer models, Habit said.
"More traditional schools will have to work in different ways," he said. Adopting new models will help students stay "engaged" in learning an prepare to move on toward careers and college. "Graduation rates are an important marker for students who are persisting toward that degree, and it suggests that other important things are taking place within the schools."