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High School Students Mysteriously Vanish

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CMS loses nearly half of each class between freshman year and graduation

Every year, thousands of Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students disappear. They were there with their classmates at the beginning of freshman year when the first bell rang and the school doors opened. But by graduation four years later, almost half of them were gone system-wide.

Have these students been kidnapped? Abducted by aliens? Do half of the kids in each graduating class move away from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area every four years? Where do these students go -- and why? No one seems to have a definitive answer to these questions -- or an answer that makes complete sense, anyway.

Officially, according to statistics released every year in reports by the school system, about 20 percent of the freshman class drops out by senior year. Three to 4 percent remain active students the following year without graduating.

Another 24 percent of the students are filed in the "left Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools" category. That's the hardest one to fathom. Every year, some number of high school students leave the school system to get their GEDs at Central Piedmont Community College or elsewhere. According to state policy for counting dropout numbers, those students are supposed to be counted as dropouts, because they didn't receive a high school diploma. Leaving the school system essentially means a student has requested to transfer their records elsewhere and plans to continue his or her education elsewhere.

At some schools, such as West Mecklenburg High School, the situation is even more dramatic than the system-wide numbers show. In 2005, just 231 graduates walked down the aisle to get their diplomas. That's less than a third of the 731 who showed up as freshmen four years before.

"By senior year, it seems like there is nobody left," said a West Mecklenburg teacher who advised Creative Loafing to look into the situation. "They don't graduate."

Across the county, at affluent Providence High School, 81 percent of the freshman class went down the aisle four years later. At East Mecklenburg, a middle suburban ring high school, just 45 percent of the students who had registered as freshman four years before tossed their caps.

For African-American students, the numbers are far more desolate. System-wide, just 43 percent of black freshman graduate four years later, compared to 68 percent of their white peers.

CL requested more clarification from the school system on its dropout accounting methods, but school officials said they would be unable to provide it by deadline because they were short-staffed due to spring break.

It stands to reason that some number of CMS high school students leave for private schools or move to other counties. But the rate at which students are disappearing at the high school level without dropping out doesn't make sense.

Before high school, the size of each class doesn't shrink -- it grows. Take the 2000 first-grade class, for instance. There were some 8,539 first graders in our school system that year. By sixth grade, that class' size had swelled to 9,521, as would be expected in a county and school system that is seeing explosive growth.

That pattern can be found with each class of students -- until after ninth grade, when the trend reverses and class size begins to shrink rapidly. Oddly enough, the percentage of dropouts on the school system's report has been rapidly dropping each year (from 22 percent two years ago to 19 percent last year). While the percentage the system lists as having "left CMS" is rapidly rising (from 21 percent two years ago to 24 percent this year).

John Hood, president of the conservative, Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, has studied how state methods of counting school dropouts mask the true extent of the problem.

"Mecklenburg County is a net importer of people," said Hood. "It is statistically impossible for Mecklenburg to be adding population the way it has and for that to show up in earlier grades in public school but not to be true in high school."

Margaret Carnes is the managing director of Charlotte Advocates for Education, a group that has spent a significant amount of time studying the dropout problem.

"You're right and I don't have any answers for you," said Carnes when we described the inconsistency to her. She called quantifying the dropout problem a "perplexing matter."

The way Hood sees it, either the system is "engineering a massive conspiracy to woefully mislead the public" or school officials don't mind presenting a misleading picture because they don't know exactly where these kids are going and they haven't figured out what is going on.

Both Carnes and Hood praised Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for going beyond state reporting requirements that largely hide the problem, and admitting that at least 20 percent of the freshman class drops out.

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, CMS has a tiny, 3.14 percent dropout rate. The state arrives at that number by counting the graduates who were freshman four years before, a mathematical formula so misleading that Hood says even his 9-year-old can explain the problems with it. In its annual report, CMS measures the graduation rate, or the number of students who graduated, which is a far more telling methodology.

None of this gets us any closer to answering the question of what happened to half the freshman class and nearly 60 percent of the black students who showed up at high schools their freshman year. If they and/or their parents truly are leaving, why? And why do the graduation rates fluctuate so wildly from school to school, such that one school graduates more than 80 percent of its freshman while another graduates less than a third?

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, a former school board member, had another question.

"In a school system that keeps asking for more money because thousands more kids show up each year, how many are leaving?" Puckett asked. "Are we net picking up seven or eight children because three or four thousand are leaving by the end of the year?"

CL will attempt to answer these and other similar questions in the coming months.

In CMS, as across the state, most kids drop out between their ninth- and tenth-grade years, when a third of all dropouts -- however many there really are -- leave high school, according to state dropout data. State officials believe that may be because the state only makes attending school compulsory for students between the ages of 7 and 16.

State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee says it is time to change the law.

"We do students a disservice to send the message that it is acceptable to drop out of school when they are 16 years old," Lee said. "A high school diploma is a minimum requirement for future success, and we will continue to press for changing the compulsory school attendance age."

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