For measures of school achievement, student test scores are easily subject to outside influences. Consider what a computer system meltdown or two weeks of instruction lost to snow days can do to the results. Graduation rates, however, reflect years of hard work in guiding students to the finish line.
By that measure, Indiana schools are succeeding impressively, and Fort Wayne Community Schools is among the state leaders. The urban district topped the 90th percentile for graduation rates last spring, exceeding the statewide average. It’s a testament to the hard work of students, teachers, administrators and parents and an endorsement of the district’s deliberate efforts in bolstering achievement.
FWCS’ graduation rate has steadily increased over the past six years, rising from 75.3 percent in 2007 to 90.7 percent for 2013. The percentage of students earning diplomas has grown in spite of another increasing figure – the percentage of students from households qualifying for a free or reduced-price lunch. The district last year topped 70 percent on that measure, which is widely accepted as the best indicator of poverty.
Not all urban districts have enjoyed the same graduation-rate success. Indianapolis Public Schools posted a 69.9 percent rate for 2011, but slipped to 65.4 percent last year and 68.3 percent this year. Evansville-Vanderburgh schools, which serve urban, suburban and rural students as a countywide district, posted only an 81.9 percent graduation rate.
FWCS also showed impressive results within demographic groups. Black students posted an 88.7 percent graduation rate; Hispanic students earned diplomas at a 91.2 percent rate; English language-learners finished at 84.4 percent. The district’s special education population graduated at a 72.9 percent rate – the second-highest rate for special education students countywide.
Mark GiaQuinta, president of the FWCS board, said the district’s achievement in those demographic groups was especially satisfying.
This is the best of the best days, he said. It shows that the district’s goal of closing the achievement gap is beginning to be achieved. We had high rates not only across the district but also in improving the subgroups we have so much wanted to impact as a district. The credit goes to our teachers at all levels – it means students are entering high school ready for the next step.
The board president said the results were a validation of the district’s work for the past nine years, but he warned that sustaining them would be difficult because of the continued erosion of funding for public schools.
We are not going to be able to see results like this if funds continue to be siphoned from public education to charters and vouchers, he said. This graduation rate reflects the last eight years, as millions were taken away from the district, but it’s going to be extremely difficult to replicate. There is a clear and present threat to our ability to continue with the programs that work – with the teacher collaboration, the professional development that has made a difference.
Indiana lawmakers, who have justified their expansion of charters and vouchers by pointing to the state’s worst-performing schools, should study the graduation rate figures closely. The FWCS performance shows that urban districts can succeed in helping students, but they need the leadership and resources to make it happen.