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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

COVID-19 Squelched Ceremonies But Not 2020 Graduation Rate In NC

Ann Doss Helms
Lincoln Charter School's graduation took place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The COVID-19 pandemic robbed most North Carolina high school graduates of their traditional ceremonies this year, but it didn't keep them from claiming diplomas. The state reported an overall on-time graduation rate of 87.6%, up about 1 percentage point over the previous year, according to a report released Wednesday.

Credit Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

The coronavirus forced schools to close in mid-March and left officials scrambling to figure out how to handle graduation requirements that couldn't be completed in person. The changes didn't seem to have any big effect, positive or negative, on graduation rates. Most schools and districts in the Charlotte region showed the small year-to-year fluctuations that mark other years.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools held flat at 85.5%, the lowest of the counties in the immediate area. Union County topped that list with a 93% rate, also unchanged. Gaston County saw the biggest gain, from 84.9% to 88%.

The virus did bring one major change: The test scores and school letter grades that normally come out along with graduation rates are gone this year. With remote instruction inconsistent and in-person testing considered unsafe, state and federal officials waived the year-end testing and the school ratings that are based on those test scores.

Race Still Matters

In fact, race and life circumstance remain bigger barriers to graduation than the deadly pandemic.

As usual, white and Asian students graduated at higher rates than Black and Hispanic classmates. Students from low-income homes, those with disabilities and those classified as English learners also logged rates well below the overall average.

Black CMS students, who make up the largest group within the district, logged a graduation rate just over 85%, similar to the state average for Black students and to last year's rate.

White CMS students, who fell just below 94% this year, showed a small gain over the previous year and topped the state average of 90.7% for white students. The district had about 100 fewer white graduates than the year before.

Hispanic CMS graduates and those classified as English learners showed the biggest gain in numbers, but logged graduation rates well below state averages. Hispanic graduation rates were 74.1% in CMS and 81.7% statewide. For English learners, CMS logged a 63% on-time graduation rate, compared with 71.4% statewide.

The rate for economically disadvantaged students was 80.2% in CMS and 82.2% statewide.

School Disparities Remain

The demographic differences played out in school-by-school rates within CMS.

Ten of the district's 30 high schools logged rates of 95% or higher. They included several selective schools, including small high schools located on college campuses, as well as two large neighborhood schools: Ardrey Kell and Providence. Both are low-poverty majority-white schools in south Charlotte.

The lowest rates were 60.6% at Harding in west Charotte and 64.5% at Garinger in east Charlotte. Both are high-poverty schools where most students are Black or Hispanic.

Credit Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.