BPS grad rates don’t tell the whole story

March 30, 2012
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Boston Public Schools (BPS) recently touted its “all-time high” four-year graduation rate of 64.4 percent. But the Gazette has found both the measure and the context are coming into question.

The BPS’s graduation rate report included a 100 percent rate for the Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. But the Gazette has learned that at least one student there dropped out last year before graduating, a move confirmed in a personal email obtained by the Gazette.

BPS spokesperson Matt Wilder referred questions to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which calculated the grad rate. The department did not respond to Gazette questions.

The rate also included a surprising 9.5 percent drop, to just over 50 percent, at Jamaica Plain’s English High School, which is in a well-known academic turnaround.

But on a March 23 Gazette tour of that school, Headmaster Sito Narcisse explained that English High serves a challenged population of students where many students take five years to graduate. The five-year rate is 68.7 percent and rising, he noted.

“The graduation rate doesn’t show you the full progress,” he said, noting that the school’s population shifts regularly because BPS allows students to choose various schools.

“That doesn’t happen in our world,” Narcisse said of the standard four-year graduation period. Five years is more typical because English serves students who come in “with more challenges than you can imagine,” he said, including English Language Learners from other countries.

He noted that English High has the second-best rate in the city for retaining students who don’t graduate in four years and making sure they eventually do graduate.

That is a major piece of context as BPS deals with higher dropout rates for black and Latino boys, said Dr. Carroll Blake, BPS’s executive director of “Achievement Gap” programs that aim to reduce disparities in education. Blake, an English High grad, joined the Gazette’s school tour.

“If it was a hospital and you were losing that many patients, you would shut down,” Blake said of BPS’s black and Latino boy dropout rate, describing BPS’s increasingly “systemic” approach to solving it.

While BPS publicity recently focused on the graduation rate, Narcisse noted that it is moving toward an “index” model of school evaluation. Measures include the “climate” of the school, parental engagement and the student suspension rates—all improving at English High.

Narcisse said that when he arrived about two years ago, the English’s School Site Council, consisted only of himself and some teachers, without the usual contingent of parents. It now has 17 members, including some parents.

In collaboration with Boston University—one of many partner groups drawn to the school in recent years—English High recently created some gender-separate classes for ninth- and 10th-graders. That’s because of such social differences as girls often being more talkative than boys and getting more academic attention, Narcisse said.

“The more homogenous the group, the easier it is to target intervention,” he said.

Possibly the biggest change at English has been expectations.

“My job has always been around raising policies and standards,” Narcisse said. “We’re not going to accept this excuse of you’re coming from poverty, you’re a student of color, whatever the challenge is.”

A writing requirement and the Socratic method of questioning are now part of the school’s classes. All students are expected to apply for college, whether they attend or not. Barry Robinson, the school’s athletic director, noted that students now must have a minimum 2.5 GPA to play sports—and the number of students joining teams has actually increased.

A tour of several classrooms during the school day showed a largely energetic, positive and disciplined atmosphere—something that could not always be said of English in recent years—with a lot of academic ambition. A debate league and a mock trial are doing well. Teachers, staff and advisers were eager to share their students’ recent success stories.

Narcisse said it all points to yet another measure the graduation rate doesn’t describe: “How well are we preparing them to leave? What sort of students do we want leaving English?”

“We’ve raised every standard in our school,” he said, “and kids have met expectations.”

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