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It's Spring!

Time to ignore annual dropout figures again

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Ah, spring. Time for the birds to sing, tulips to bloom and the state to release its annual high school dropout report. Which is usually followed by the annual Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools press release about how peachy everything is which is in turn followed by the annual local media coverage of how peachy CMS says everything is which is then followed by my coverage of how they are all full of . . . What's that? No press release? No articles? Could that be because our dropout rate increased for the first time since 1999? Had anyone bothered to make a note of this, the news reports would have said that Mecklenburg County's rate edged up a bit from 4.02 percent last year to 4.48 percent this year.

This is the part where I usually explain that the screwy numbers system the state uses — the one that would lead you to believe that 96 percent of kids graduate — is misleading. You have to remember it's a rate, which means that by the time today's freshmen graduate four years from now, over 20 percent of them will have dropped out. In fact, last year, 22 percent did just that.

Try wrapping your mind around the following for a minute. You know the $979 million it will cost to run the schools next year? Well, picture them chucking 22 percent of that, about $215 million, into a big pile in front of the Ed Center year after year, spritzing it with lighter fluid and then setting it on fire. They might as well. It's the most effective strategy for eradicating the geese in Marshall Park I've heard so far, and we'd at least get something for our money.

But dropout rates don't paint the whole picture; in fact, they hide a lot. Our actual graduation rate is only 53.7 percent. Of the freshmen that started four years before, 53.7 percent graduated, 21 percent left CMS, 4 percent remained active students but lacked the credits to graduate, and 22 percent dropped out.

One of the reasons you haven't heard about this is because the school system only dedicates about a quarter-page to one of its biggest problems in its annual 81-page district report. But burying the problem won't change the fact that our system is bleeding kids. As usual, those with the fewest opportunities in life are hurt the worst by the problems this community stubbornly refuses to talk about.

The fact remains that while we obsess over which schools children on the free and reduced lunch program should attend, nearly a third of them, 31 percent, are dropping out between their freshman and senior years, as are 28 percent of African-American kids and 15 percent of white kids.

And that's only the beginning of the story. School system cheerleaders would like you to believe that all children can prepare for greatness — and apparently actually graduate — at any of our fine schools. Not so. Waddell and West Mecklenburg high schools have dropout rates of 10 percent, twice the district average. At seven percent, and climbing, Vance and Garinger are right on their heels.

But it's what's going on at the "good" schools with tidy three percent dropout rates that's even more shocking. An analysis by Creative Loafing showed that those low dropout rates hide the fact that black kids are falling through the cracks in much higher percentages at the district's most coveted majority white schools.

At all of the majority African-American schools in town, the percentage of those who drop out who are black is about the same as their percentage of the school population, give or take a little. At Harding High School, for instance, 58 percent of the school population is African-American and 56 percent of those who dropped out last year were.

But at all but one majority white school where African-Americans make up about a quarter of the population or less, the percentage of black kids who drop out is double and, in some cases, three times that of their percentage in the school population. At Myers Park High School, African-American kids make up only 23 percent of the student body but 60 percent of those who drop out. Ditto for Providence, where nine percent of the student body is black and 25 percent of those who drop out are. The same phenomenon can be found at Hopewell, North Mecklenburg and at Northwest, where about half the student population is black, compared to 73 percent of those who drop out.

Oddly enough, the trend seems to work in reverse in two majority African-American schools. At Garinger, 12 percent of the school population is white, and 29 percent of those who drop out are; at Phillip O. Berry, the numbers are nearly identical.

Something is clearly up here. If we were the kind of community that admitted things like this go on here, we would probably look into this. But since we're not, you likely won't be hearing about this again until next spring after another year's worth of kids have been washed right down the drain.

Got a story idea? Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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