By Julia Masters
There may at least be one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Partially because of a pandemic-forced switch to remote learning and also through concentrated efforts by high school principals and staff, the graduation rate for Black students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools jumped nearly 10 percent during the last school year.
The rate for Black students rose from 78.6 percent in the 2018-19 academic year to 88.0 percent in 2019-20. That’s better than the state average of 85.2 for Black students.
And it was not the only local group that saw a big increase.
The percentage of economically disadvantaged students that graduated rose by 7.2 percentage points to 84.0 percent in 2019-20. The population of students with disabilities saw the largest graduation rate increase, 11.8 percentage points — from 72.4 percent in 2018-19 to 84.2 percent in 2019-20.
The 4-year graduation rate for the overall CHCCS student body increased from 90.9 percent to 92.7 percent.
Though COVID-19 has brought its own set of unprecedented challenges to schools across the country, it may have contributed to the increase in graduation rates for certain student groups as it forced a structured flexibility, said district officials
“If there’s one thing that COVID taught us that is a silver lining, it’s being flexible and having grace with people because you don’t know their circumstances,” said Jessica O’Donovan, CHCCS assistant superintendent. “We have got to keep grace and flexibility.”
When the pandemic hit last spring, the school district administration and staff did everything in their power to hold students harmless, said O’Donovan. This meant getting creative about letting students make up work and giving them chances to raise their grades. Following North Carolina guidelines, seniors’ grades were only allowed to increase after a certain date, ensuring that COVID-19 was not the reason for a decline in academic standing.
While that accounted for some of the increase in graduation rates, the focused efforts of high school principals in fighting for the success of each student over the past several years did as well, O’Donovan said.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into making sure students are eligible to be seniors, so it wasn’t simply what happened last spring. It was the work that went before to make sure that students were in a position to graduate,” said O’Donovan. “When I asked principals to really think about that they talk about how incredibly intentional they have been over the last several years.”
Within the last four years, the district has gained three new high school principals, who have shared ideas and best practices among each other, officials said. At the end of each school year, they look at each student to see if the student is on track with their credits. If not, they make an individualized learning plan for the following year to address any issues — whether academic or social/emotional.
Fostering preventive intervention, principals also meet with school counselors and go over each senior’s grades, attendance and discipline referral records to identify areas of concern and take action sooner.
“That’s the kind of intentional work principals have been doing over the last two years to really make sure that students have what they need and I think that is one of the reasons we’ve seen that [graduation rate] increase in our Black students and our EC students — that intentionality, specifically for students who have had lower graduation rates in the past because I don’t think proper attention was given to their individual needs,” said O’Donovan.
In CHCCS, the 4-year graduation rate for students who don’t have English as their first language saw a slight decrease, but a sizable 8.6 percentage point rise in 5-year rates to 80 percent.
Despite the rising numbers, district staff and administration still remain concerned about the pandemic’s effect on academic success, as more students have been forced to get jobs and help out their families financially.
“One of the adjustments that we are making this year is that we are seeing many students who need to work and support their families and again, that is falling heavily on some of our English learners and many of them are Latinx and they were really struggling to attend classes during the day because they are working,” said O’Donovan.
Many of these students are part of CHCCS’ Spire Dropout Prevention and Recovery Program, designed for seniors who only need a few credits to graduate and work full time. The program allows them to complete courses in quarters, rather than semesters, and take classes at night with support from staff.
At a recent school board meeting, Interim Superintendent Jim Causby stressed the importance of these students returning to onsite learning before the end of the year.
“What we want to do with these students — a number of them live in families where there is not a quiet space for them to study and do what they need to do,” said Causby. “We would like to be able to offer for those students to come to the Phoenix Center at the evening hours and have a quiet place to work with staff to keep them up to date on their coursework.”
The board is looking into implementing a student return plan that would allow for the highest-risk students to voluntarily come back to onsite operations in November or December.
Causby noted that while remote learning works for some students, it does not adequately meet the needs of all.
“We are going to see a backslide [in graduation rates] and that is across the board because remote learning is not the same…,” O’Donovan acknowledged. “We have a small group of kids who might thrive in that environment, but the majority of students … our students who have less resources, or our students of color, our English learners, who have been traditionally underserved in schools already, I think that has been exacerbated when they are at home and it’s just harder in general.”
“Our goal is … that 100 percent of students will graduate, and will be prepared to enter college or the workplace with a very specific skillset that allows them to obtain a job so they can support themselves,” said O’Donovan. “That is our goal and COVID has made that incredibly challenging.”