The number of students finishing high school on time in D.C. Public Schools reached an all-time high with the Class of 2016, inching the school system closer to meeting an ambitious graduation goal it set nearly five years ago.
The District’s most recent graduating class saw 69 percent of seniors earn diplomas within four years, a five-point increase from the previous class. The improvement marks the second year in a row the school system has experienced a significant increase.
Outgoing Chancellor Kaya Henderson had hoped to see 75 percent of the school system’s seniors graduate within four years by 2017, a goal that appears within reach if the current class sees a similar increase.
“When we set these goals, people said we were crazy,” Henderson said. “As I walk out of here at the end this week, I want people to feel a sense of possibility.”
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Graduation rates for the city’s charter schools — which enroll nearly half of public school students in the District — are not yet available.
Graduation rates are seen as an important measure of how well a system is preparing its students for college and careers: Those who make it all the way to diplomas have a better chance of finding success, even if they do not go on to higher education. Most school systems set increasing graduation rates as a primary goal, and many work as early as possible to intercept students who might be going off track in their academic careers.
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Some school systems, including D.C. Public Schools, have programs that push those close to graduation across the finish line. The national graduation rate has been climbing steadily — rising past 80 percent in 2012 for the first time in U.S. history, a 10 percentage point jump from a decade earlier — and the national graduation rate hit an all-time high of more than 82 percent in 2013-2014, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The District’s graduation rates still lag far behind national averages.
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Although graduation rates in D.C. Public Schools have increased dramatically in recent years, the school system acknowledged that achievement is still low for some schools and that reaching graduation does not necessarily mean that students are prepared for life after high school.
At H.D. Woodson High School, for example, 76 percent of its students graduated on time, yet just 1 percent met math standards on national standardized tests linked to the Common Core academic standards. Just 4 percent met reading standards.
Henderson said the school system switched to the Common Core tests in part because some students were not prepared for future success on graduating, and officials hoped that stricter teaching standards and academic requirements would push students in the right direction. She said there will be some “lag until we start seeing results.”
“Graduation rates are not the end-all be-all,” Henderson said. “We have to make sure students are graduating in a timely matter and are prepared for college and career.”
John Gomperts, chief executive of America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of groups seeking to boost graduation rates nationwide, said he is glad to see that graduation rates continue to climb because this means more students are getting high school diplomas. Without a high school diploma, it’s almost a guarantee “that nothing good is going to happen to you,” Gomperts said.
But even for students who do graduate nowadays, Gomperts said, the diploma is no guarantee of success.
“It used to be that if you could just stumble across that stage and shake the principal’s hand, then you were good,” Gomperts said. “That’s not true in today’s world.”
In the District, most of the city’s neighborhood high schools saw improved graduation rates this year. The rates dipped only at Anacostia and Roosevelt high schools. Anacostia’s fell to 42 percent of students graduating in 2016, compared with 46 percent the previous year. Roosevelt’s rate dropped three points to 59 percent.
Henderson said the two schools now have new principals, and she expects results there to improve.
Nearly every student graduated on time at most of the city’s application high schools. Only Columbia Heights Educational Campus posted a graduation rate lower than 90 percent. Wilson High School had the highest rate among non-application schools, at 88 percent; Anacostia’s was lowest.
Vast gaps in graduation rates persist between white and minority students, with 67 percent of black students graduating on time, compared with 93 percent of white students. Black males, in particular, have some of the lowest graduation rates in the school system; 60 percent graduated on time in the Class of 2016.
“This is, in part, why we have created strategies, particularly in this area with Ron Brown, to help break that cycle,” Henderson said.
The school system this year opened Ron Brown College Preparatory High School with 110 students, all of whom are black and Latino males. The school is Henderson’s attempt to focus resources on improving achievement for minority males, and getting them to graduation will be one of its most important performance measures.
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Henderson and principals gave credit for the improved citywide rates to the school systems’ investment in more extracurricular activities, more-challenging course offerings and increased opportunities for credit recovery. High schools also are focusing on students’ transition from middle school to ninth grade and on making sure that students pass English and math, two courses that researchers say are critical predictors of high school success.
“If we are waiting until the 12th-grade year, we are really too late,” said Abdullah Zaki, Dunbar High School’s principal.
Dunbar’s graduation rate surged to 74 percent for the Class of 2016, a 15-point improvement from 2012.
While Zaki is proud of the results, he said the school still struggles to ensure that all students are focused on passing each class with at least a grade of B and are thinking about their futures.
“There are some students who are intentionally self-sabotaging themselves because they don’t know what’s next after high school,” Zaki said “We need to make sure we are helping students see these are the things you can do, even if going to college is not in your plans.”
Below are the graduation rates for D.C. Public Schools high schools for the 2015-2016 academic year, in alphabetical order:
Anacostia: 42 percent
Ballou: 57 percent
Cardozo: 59 percent
Coolidge: 65 percent
Dunbar: 74 percent
Eastern: 79 percent
Roosevelt: 59 percent
Wilson: 88 percent
Woodson: 76 percent
Banneker: 100 percent
Columbia Heights: 86 percent
Ellington Schools of the Arts: 96 percent
McKinley Technology: 99 percent
Phelps ACE: 94 percent
School Without Walls: 100 percent
Luke Moore Alternative: 38 percent
Washington Metropolitan: 43 percent