College & Workforce Readiness Reporter's Notebook

Southern Leaders Urged to Tackle Graduation Rates

By Robert C. Johnston — July 11, 2006 4 min read
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The Southern Regional Education Board hammered away at the need to improve high school completion rates and prepare more students for college during the group’s annual board meeting here June 25-27.

Gov. Sonny Perdue

“It hurts that about 40 percent of our high school students are not getting a diploma,” Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, said of his state’s graduation rate.

Mr. Perdue made the remarks in his June 27 acceptance speech to about 100 attendees after being elected as the group’s new chairman, replacing Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat. The SREB is a nonprofit, Atlanta-based organization that focuses on school improvement and research. Its 16 member states stretch from Florida to Delaware.

“It might be wild and ambitious,” Mr. Perdue continued, “but I think we ought to have 100 percent of our kids graduate from high school.”

Like the rest of the nation, the SREB states have a long way to go: Ten of those states are below the nation’s average graduation rate of 69.6 percent, according to Diplomas Count, a report released last month by Education Week.

To help get there, the Georgia governor said, the SREB will identify successful local initiatives—likely involving rigorous coursework, providing students with feedback, and connecting schoolwork with career and technical studies—and try to expand them statewide.

For example, he highlighted an initiative in his state that will be launched this fall to place a “graduation coach” in every high school.

“They will do whatever it takes: a kick in the pants or a hug around the neck,” he said. In an interview after his speech, Mr. Perdue said he hopes eventually to place graduation coaches in middle schools as well.

But SREB officials noted that the other big push will have to involve convincing the public that there is a graduation-rate problem and that it must be addressed.

David S. Spence, who is completing his first year as the president of the SREB, said that the responses often heard when low graduation rates are discussed range from “it’s always been like this” to “there are different ways of measuring this,” or “we are improving.”

“This is real, but there is not the kind of awareness and concern there needs to be,” he said.

Mr. Spence and Gov. Perdue said that improving college readiness would be a focal point of their group this year, and they promised to urge higher education leaders to get more involved in the effort.

Toward that end, the SREB will form a panel to study ways to develop and build standards for college readiness into the high school curriculum.

“We can keep requiring courses, but kids who took these courses still need remediation,” Mr. Spence said. “Higher education must speak with one voice about readiness.”

In an animated session during the conference, two education experts discussed ways to improve the transition from 8th to 9th grade.

“This is the most difficult transition in education,” said Gene Bottoms, the SREB’s senior vice president.

Referring to the “9th grade bulge,” he noted that failure rates in 9th grade contribute to the median number of 9th graders in SREB states being 16 percent higher than the number of students in 8th grade. He stressed the importance of students taking—and passing—rigorous courses in middle school and addressing students’ academic weaknesses when they reach 9th grade.

“The best way to make kids successful in 9th grade is to make sure they have a good 8th grade,” echoed Tom Vander Ark, the executive director for education initiatives at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The two speakers suggested many strategies for improving 9th grade success rates, such as putting some of the best teachers in the 9th grade, improving communication between middle and high schools, and connecting one adult with every student as a way to closely monitor his or her progress.

Mr. Bottoms and Mr. Vander Ark acknowledged the challenges of improving schools that are low-performing and failing to meet the needs of struggling students. “A single school has a hard time if the board is not supportive,” Mr. Bottoms said.

Reflecting on his work, Mr. Vander Ark added, “I completely overestimated individual schools’ ability to write their own curriculum. They’re struggling for a reason. They don’t know what to do.”

Reflecting on the coming school year in Louisiana, Gov. Blanco, the outgoing SREB chairwoman, said she expects that the opening of more than 50 schools in New Orleans this fall will help draw families who fled the area following Hurricane Katrina back to the city.

After years of being plagued by low student performance and leadership controversies, schools in New Orleans have been organized into a mix that includes some under state leadership, others run as independent charter schools, and a few run by the school district. (“56 New Orleans Schools to Accept Students for New Year,” this issue.)

“It’s a huge experiment to see if we can redesign an urban school system that was not experiencing success,” the governor said in an interview here.

She added, though, that many displaced families also have come to expect more from their schools, based on their experiences outside New Orleans. She recounted conversations with parents who told her, “ ‘I want to come home, but I’m in a decent school now, and that’s what I want.’ ”

Ms. Blanco added: “Our families have higher and more focused expectations. I know that some before didn’t know what to ask for, and now they’re coming back empowered.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week

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