Community partnerships positively impact graduation rates in Forsyth

by Keith Barber

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools improved its high school graduation rate by more than 5 percentage points during the 2010- 11 school year. The school district’s 2011 graduation rate was 78.8 percent, up 5.2 percentage points from 73.6 percent in 2010, according to a school system press release.

Superintendent Don Martin attributed the significant improvement in graduation rates to the tutoring and mentoring programs provided by local nonprofits such as the United Way of Forsyth County, Winston- Salem Chamber of Commerce, Community Education Collaboration, Communities in Schools and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Forsyth County.

The United Way of Forsyth County invests $600,000 annually in its Graduating Our Future program, which assists middle and high school students with tutoring, mentoring and counseling services.

“It provides an integrated approach to supporting schools and student success,” said Eric Aft, chief operating officer of United Way of Forsyth County.

In addition to offering academic and counseling services to students throughout the school year, Graduating Our Future sponsors a summer transition program for incoming high school freshmen and rising 6th graders.

“The program began at Parkland High School and were able to take some of the lessons learned about what progress we were seeing there and do some work at Atkins [High School] and Carver [High School] this year,” Aft said.

Atkins High School led the way in graduation rate increases with 17 percentage points, while Parkland High School experienced an increase of 9.4 percent in its graduation rate.

Graduating Our Future will be expanded to North Forsyth High School beginning next year, and the school system estimates nearly 3,000 students will be involved in the program during the coming school year.

“At a cost of only $200 per student, that’s a wonderful return on investment,” Aft said.

The strength of Graduating Our Future is the program’s flexibility, he added.

For example, Atkins High School receives federal funding for an after-school tutoring program funds, but a lot of students don’t have transportation if they don’t take the bus right after school.

“We help with transportation so we can reach more kids,” Aft said. “We solved one of the barriers that really prevented [students] from getting the help that was being offered to them.”

Graduating Our Future has grown and evolved over time, and the substantial investment of the United Way is already beginning to pay dividends.

“The first round of sixth graders we worked with came to Parkland last year and [school administrators] told us it was some of the most prepared freshmen they’ve ever had,” Aft said. “That’s our goal — to work with a wide range of community partners and identify the most efficient and effective strategies to create success for our kids.

“Reaching 20 kids is not going to change our graduation rate,” Aft continued. “What we’ve identified at United Way is that we need to make meaningful investments [in education] that change the game.”

Graduating Our Future and Senior Academy, a mentoring program led by the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, represent two programs in the Community Education Collaborative. The collaborative was created several years ago to build a bridge between the school system and the Winston-Salem community, said Walter McDowell, the group’s chairman.

Senior Academy pairs adult mentors with high school seniors who are at risk of not graduating so that students can map out a strategy to graduate on time and consider their education options after high school, said chamber president Gayle Anderson.

“Our program is really designed to help those students that are so, so close and help them get across the finish line,” she said. “To a large extent, [mentors] do what a child’s parent might do — they’re really an advocate for the student.

“It’s not tutoring— it’s a mentoring relationship,” she continued. “It helps build confidence and self-esteem. The student knows there is someone that will go to bat for them.”

Senior Academy launched in 2007 and currently serves 90 students in the six high schools with the highest dropout rates. Anderson said the graduation rate for students in the program hovers between 96 and 98 percent.

Senior Academy offers three $800 scholarships to qualifying seniors annually and the program is hoping to expand once it recruits additional mentors, Anderson said.

The school system also announced last week that only 20 percent of its schools hit their annual yearly progress, or AYP, goals for 2010-11. Annual Yearly Progress goals are tied to the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal mandate that requires all students to be 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Theo Helm, director of marketing and communications for the school system, said the fact only 20 percent of schools in Forsyth met their AYP goals could be attributed in part to a steep increase in proficiency benchmarks from 2010 to 2011. For example, AYP targets for proficiency in reading increased from 38 percent in 2010 to 68 percent in 2011.

“No Child Left Behind is good in that it makes all school systems look at the performance of their students, but we don’t think that an all-or-nothing measure is fair,” Helm said. “The AYP looks at two different groups of students — it’s last year’s third-graders and this year’s third-graders. It doesn’t give credit for growth for a group of students; that’s something No Child Left Behind completely ignores.”

Dana Wrights, director for accountability services for the school system, said a 100 percent proficiency goal for all students in reading and math by 2014 is simply unrealistic.

“At the federal level, legislators and government officials already realize that the model needs to be changed,” Wrights said. “In my opinion, we need to focus more on how we’re moving students to proficiency and beyond, which is a growth model.”

Schools that made AYP targets included Clemmons Elementary, the Downtown School, Jefferson Elementary, Jefferson Middle, Lewisville Elementary, Meadowlark Elementary, Meadowlark Middle, Old Richmond Elementary, Parkland High, Piney Grove Elementary, Rural Hall Elementary, Vienna Elementary, West Forsyth High, Whitaker Elementary and Jacket Academy at Carver.

Wrights said North Carolina has a successful growth model for measuring excellence in education — the state’s ABCs of Public Education.

“The ABCs model is a check-and-balance model measuring how individual students have progressed from year to year,” Wrights said. “The state measures whether [students] have met expected growth and there’s also a performance composite for the school.”

Wrights said based on national trends, Forsyth is on a par with most schools in the United States. She said US Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress in March that he expected that as many as 82 percent of US schools would not meet AYP standards this year.

Compared to other metropolitan school districts in the state, Forsyth fell somewhere in the middle. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district had 28 percent of its schools meet AYP targets while Guilford County had 24.8 percent of its schools hit the targets. Wake County had only 13.5 percent of its schools hit AYP targets while only 13.2 percent of Durham County Schools met the federal benchmarks.

Wrights explained that No Child Left Behind looks at the percentage of students in a school who are at or above grade level in reading and math and measures proficiency scores of subgroups of students broken down by race and other categories. If any subgroup does not reach the state proficiency goals, then the entire school does not make AYP. Despite the fact only 20 percent of schools met AYP targets, in the district as a whole, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools met 64 of 78 AYP targets, or 82 percent.

In addition, the standards and measurements of the AYP are tweaked on an annual basis, Wrights said. In 2006, the NC Department of Public Instruction increased the difficulty of the math test and reset standards on the reading test in 2008. Endof-grade (EOG) test scores in grades 3-8 and EOG scores for 10 th graders are used to calculate a school’s AYP.

“In high school, they’ve changed which tests they use to calculate AYP,” Wrights said. “It used to be the comprehensive test, but now it’s a combination of English I and the writing test. For a student to be deemed proficient they must pass both tests. If they pass one test and not the other, they’re not given credit.”

The NC Department of Public Instruction is expected to release how Forsyth schools did on the ABCs of Public Education tests sometime next week, Wrights added.

To see graduation rates for Forsyth high schools and to find out how well Forsyth school did in meeting adequately yearly progress goals, click HERE.