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CMS will monitor absences and disengagement in a bid to boost on-time graduation rates

CMS students gather for the midyear graduation ceremony Feb. 10.
CMS students gather for the midyear graduation ceremony Feb. 10.

Superintendent Earnest Winston said Tuesday that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will start watching earlier for warning signs that high school students won’t graduate in four years.

The district’s on-time graduation rates have inched down over the past four years, despite efforts to ensure that seniors are doing what it takes to earn a diploma. That’s partly because of changes in the way the state calculates the rates, but it also signals another challenge in ensuring success for all students, according to a report presented to the school board.

The CMS goal is to have 95% of students earning a diploma within four years by 2024. The 2022 goal is 91%, but projections indicate it will be more like 83%.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Like so many measures of academic success, the rates vary when broken down by race. About 93% of white and Asian seniors are on track to graduate on time, the report says, compared with 80% of Black, 74% of Latino and 65% of English learners.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

So far, CMS has focused on making sure 12th-graders are on track, but Winston told the board that needs to start in 10th and 11th grades. Chronic absenteeism and lack of engagement in school are indicators that a student may not graduate.

"The challenges begin way before the students get to 12th grade," Winston said. "And so, more monitoring at the earlier grade levels, and then responding with real-time interventions to help address those challenges that students may be facing.

In fall 2021, when high schools were still in remote learning, CMS polled students on several measures of social and emotional health. That poll found that only about 25% of students in grades 9-11 described themselves as engaged with school.

Strategies for preventing students from falling behind include extending the credit recovery program to grades 10 and 11, designating “graduation coaches” and hiring more bilingual staff, especially in schools with large numbers of students and families who don’t speak English well.

Winston acknowledged that CMS has been using many of those strategies already, sometimes with little success.

"It’s not so much that we have to go out and do a whole lot of new things, but we need to deepen and work with a sense of urgency around some of the things that we have in place and make those systemwide," he said.

Tuesday’s report was part of an ongoing series of data reviews intended to help the school board focus more intensely on strategies for meeting academic goals. Because the pandemic set most students back and widened existing racial disparities, these sessions have often highlighted areas where students of color are struggling, such as third-grade reading, high school math and advanced classes in high school.

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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.