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Honey, we lost the kids

Almost half of local high school students vanish

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It was all supposed to be about the children, but somewhere along the way, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System appears to have lost nearly half of them.

Last month, a report by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction showed that CMS has a 74.6 percent graduation rate. But an analysis by Creative Loafing shows that figure is misleading because the state's formula doesn't count thousands of students who are the most likely to drop out.

Though 10,605 students were enrolled in the ninth grade in 2002, the formula the state used only counted the 6,555 students who were in the ninth grade for the first time that year. Another 4,050 CMS ninth graders who weren't categorized as "first timers" were excluded.

"The ninth grade is a large drop-out grade," says Cheryl Pulliam, director of administration and research at the former Charlotte Advocates for Education, an education non-profit that is currently transitioning into an new advocacy group with another name. "I know there is huge controversy over whether those kids should be included as part of the percentage that do graduate and the decision was made not to."

The new state formula, which has been heavily criticized in recent weeks, only measures the percentage of first-time ninth graders in 2002 who got their diplomas four years later. The state's previous formula, which showed tiny drop-out rates of three and four percent, was discarded to meet federal regulations. Like the new formula, it also failed to count thousands of students.

When it comes to CMS' vanishing students, the truth is a slippery commodity. According to a report released by CMS December 2006, only 54.4 percent of the students in 2002's ninth grade class graduated in 2006. Another four percent remained active students and 17.5 percent dropped out, the school system claims. In addition, a whopping 24 percent "left" the system, according to the report. What became of them is an enduring educational mystery.

Students are officially said to have "left" the system when they request to transfer their records elsewhere and plan to continue their education elsewhere. So are they fleeing the county? The state? Are they enrolling in private school?

That seems unlikely, John Hood of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation said last year. From kindergarten to the ninth grade, class sizes at CMS grow, rather than shrink. It's unlikely that large numbers of families would suddenly start moving out of the county, which is growing, when their kids hit high school if families weren't doing that when their kids were in the earlier grades.

True, some students leave, but others enroll in the system, too. So what gives? The official explanation has long been that most of these students are leaving to go to Central Piedmont Community College to get their GED. CPCC spokesperson Jerri Haigler says the community college doesn't track how many of the 1,715 people enrolled in its 2005-2006 GED program for 16-and-17-year-olds came from CMS verses other counties. Haigler says 666 of them completed the program and got their GED.

Students must be withdrawn from enrollment at CMS for at least six months to qualify for CPCC's GED program, Haigler says. Another 3,200 students enrolled in CPCC's adult high school program for those over 18 during the 2005-2006 year.

"A lot of them end up dropping out (of CMS) and they may stay out a year or so before they go back, but I don't know the exact number," says Pulliam. Again, with CMS' vanished students, exact numbers can be hard to come by.

But even if large percentages of CMS students eventually get their GEDs, they're still likely to face much bleaker economic futures than those who get their diplomas. Some studies have put the earnings of those with GEDs at just one percent higher than those who dropped out.

"When you look at the projected or estimated lifetime earnings of students who have a GED, it is really not much better than students who drop out of high school," says education advocate Margaret Carnes, former managing director of Charlotte Advocates for Education. "A high school diploma yields higher earnings than GEDs and drop outs. There is a compelling argument that GEDs are not the same thing as a high school diploma and shouldn't be counted as such."

Carnes predicts some shock and discomfort in Charlotte and across the state next year, when the state's department of education is scheduled to switch to a more straightforward formula to calculate graduation rates, one that will track the fate of virtually all of the system's ninth graders.

"I don't think that the general population or parents or even educators ... are anticipating that the numbers are going to be what they are," says Carnes. "When you report drop out rates as we have in the past based on the number of seniors who graduate who were there four years earlier -- which is just wild -- of course there is going to be some shock and denial."

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