Education

Graduation rates provide ammo for Wake diversity critics

Posted March 1, 2010 5:55 p.m. EST
Updated March 4, 2010 4:41 p.m. EST

Wake County Public School System

— President Barack Obama on Monday proposed providing $900 million in grants to states and school districts that agree to drastically change or even shutter their worst-performing schools.

The move is an effort to boost the nation's high school graduation rate. About 70 percent of U.S. students graduate from high school.

North Carolina's graduation rate has improved steadily in recent years, from 68.1 percent in 2006-07 to 71.7 percent last year. Yet the graduation rates of several of the largest school districts in the state, including Wake, Mecklenburg and Durham counties, have fallen in recent years.

Wake County's graduation rate dropped from 82.6 percent in 2006 to 78.4 percent last year, and the falloff has been especially pronounced among minority and low-income students.

Members of the Wake County Board of Education who have pushed to change the school district's diversity policy point to the declining graduation rate as an example that the current system doesn't work.

The diversity policy called for assigning students so that schools had no more than 40 percent of their students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, which indicates they come from a lower-income family.

The school board plans to vote Tuesday on scrapping the policy in favor of a neighborhood schools concept that would allow students to go to schools closer to their homes, regardless of the socio-economic makeup of the student body.

"It hasn't been helpful," school board member John Tedesco said of the diversity policy, "so we have to try something new. We have to help these kids, and if we can do it with a new model that helps create stability for our county and choice and still value our goals of diversity, I think we have a winner."

Christine Kushner, a parent and member of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, which supports the current diversity policy, said population growth and state and local budget cuts are to blame for the falling graduation rate.

"There is an achievement gap in our county that we must address as a community," Kushner said, adding that she believes the numbers would be worse if the diversity policy hadn't been in place.

Cody Allison, who dropped out in the ninth grade and is now pursuing a GED at Wake Technical Community College, said there are many reasons students quit high school. But he said he believes most dropouts later regret the decision to leave.

"It was definitely a mistake. I'd love to go back and change," Allison said.