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Grad rate of 70% is noteworthy

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Nothing holds us more accountable in public education than the graduation rate. Students spend 13 or more years in our schools with the ultimate goal of earning a high school diploma that will pave a path toward college, career and success. When they fail, we fail. When they succeed, we do as well.

That’s why we did a little bit of celebrating a few weeks ago when the 2012 graduation rates were released. Seven out of 10 of our students are now earning their high school diploma in four years. That’s the best graduation rate APS has seen since we started tracking peer groups. It’s been steadily increasing since I became superintendent nearly five years ago. In fact, we just hit the 70 percent target we set when I took the job.

All but three of our 12 comprehensive high schools saw increases in their graduation rate. Atrisco Heritage Academy saw a first-time graduation rate of nearly 77 percent! And four of our five alternative schools are experiencing steady improvement, as are several of our comprehensive high schools, including Albuquerque High, Highland, Rio Grande and West Mesa – all have seen gains exceeding 5 percentage points in the past three years.

Just as importantly, our schools that didn’t see improvement know what went wrong and are working to get their kids back on track. Like at Valley High, where Principal Anthony Griego and his team are monitoring the 40 or so students who didn’t walk across the stage at graduation with their classmates.

About a dozen of those young men and women are still at Valley, on track to graduate this spring or next fall. Another two dozen are in charter or alternative schools, taking classes and making up credits. Most of these students are eventually going to earn their diplomas, as are the special needs kids at Manzano and the young parents at New Futures who just need a little extra time. We haven’t given up on them, nor did we give up on our 200 summer school graduates, students who got sidetracked when life threw them a curve ball.

We recognize that some of our kids need a little extra help, a little more guidance, on their trek to graduation. That’s why we’ve implemented many programs and changes in recent years to help more and more students reach that pinnacle. For example, we’ve extended the day at all of our comprehensive high schools so kids who fail a class and fall behind can recover credits after school, before school, during lunch. Another option for them is to take online classes through eCADEMY, which enrolled nearly 2,200 students this semester alone, its biggest class yet.

We’ve also raised our expectations, pushing first-generation college-bound kids to take Advanced Placement classes and college entrance exams. At 25 of our high schools and middle schools, we’ve added AVID classes (Advancement Via Individual Determination), where students who in the past may have been at risk of dropping out are now learning organizational and study skills and beginning to look at college and career options. Getting kids to see the value of a high school diploma is a great graduation motivator.

I’m especially pleased to see our minority, poor and challenged students are now graduating in greater numbers. That’s an indication that we’re beginning to narrow the achievement gap. We saw more Hispanic, African American, Asian, Native American, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities and English Language Learners graduate in 2012 than we had before. We’re working to improve the success rate of these students by building our force of highly qualified English-as-a-second language and special education teachers, getting more minority students in programs that will help keep them on track, and offering more support including career and college counselors at every high school.

As happy as we are that we’re seeing improvement, we’re not at all satisfied with the results. I’ve already set a new marker – I want to see 75 percent of our students graduating with their peers in the next three years. And after that, we’ll shoot even higher. We’d love to see all of our students earn a high school diploma. Now that’s a worthy goal.

Winston Brooks, Albuquerque’s school superintendent, writes a monthly column. Send comments or questions to superintendent@ aps.edu.

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