As superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, I have the distinct honor every May to shake the hand of every newly minted APS graduate who walks the stage during graduation. And as I watch these new graduates return to their seats, I wonder what graduating from high school actually means to them … what choices they have in their lives now they have an actual diploma in hand.
When APS and the Atlanta Board of Education adopted the mission two years ago to graduate every student ready for college and career, we made it clear that one measurement of academic progress stood out above all else: graduation rates.
Many benchmarks define the success of a school district, but this one measure succinctly tells us how much progress we are making on the APS mission. Based on data released today by the Georgia Department of Education, I learned that I shook the hands of 2,267 four-year graduates in 2016, 151 more than in 2015.
That warms my heart knowing that we are giving more and more students a chance at choice-filled lives. It means we are making progress on the transformational work that is necessary to turnaround Atlanta Public Schools.
But the mission is to graduate EVERY student. Again, looking at the data released today, we are 71.1 percent of the way there.
This year’s rate was a slight .4 percentage point decrease from last year’s recent high of 71.5 percent – a significant rise of 12.5 percentage points. Maintaining that boost proves that our progress in graduating more students in APS is significant, real and sustainable.
And we have other major bright spots from the graduation data. For example, five of our schools posted graduation rates above the state rate of 79.2 percent. These include:
- Carver Early College, 98.7 percent
- KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, 92.9 percent
- Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, 89.7 percent
- North Atlanta High, 88.3 percent
- Grady High, 86.4 percent
I am especially pleased that four schools achieved significant increases in their graduation rates: B.E.S.T. Academy showed a 12.2 percentage point gain to reach a 78.8 percent graduation rate; followed by Douglass with a 10.1 percentage point gain and a 68.8 percent graduation rate; North Atlanta, with a 6.8 percentage point gain and an 88.3 percent rate; and Maynard H. Jackson with a 5.9 percentage point gain and a 76.9 percent rate.
But not all of our students made it across the finish line in 2016, which means the work continues.
We put a lot of effort into tracking our students, ensuring they are on the path toward graduation and giving them credit-recovery and other opportunities to get back on track if they fall behind. For example, the district’s Schools and Academic Office has developed a district-wide transcript audit across grades 9 through 12 and credit accumulation balance sheets for high school students to be reviewed each term. They are training teams of professional school counselors, registrars and student information coordinators on transcript analysis and best practices for maintaining accurate student records. We’ve amended district policy to allow middle school students to earn high school credits.
And we are increasing opportunities for high school students to enroll in post-secondary coursework and earn associate degrees upon high school graduation through the Move on When Ready program.
Additionally, the district has made social emotional learning or SEL a district priority. These skills are foundational to the academic success of our students. If students can persevere – set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships – they will be more successful in work and in life. Such increased levels of student engagement, over time, should also result in higher graduation rates.
But the work for us and for students doesn’t end with a high school diploma. As I told students at graduation last May, the diploma is but the first of many steps in their lives. It’s an important one because it opens doors and creates options for them.
Working with Achieve Atlanta, we want to make those options after high school more attainable and make the transition to them seamless, wherever possible.
Achieve Atlanta has already awarded more than 700 of our 2016 graduates with scholarships to college. In addition to the district’s own work in tracking students on their progress, Achieve Atlanta provides critical advisement to our students about college and assists with college entrance exams and the admissions process. They also continue to track our kids after graduation.
So the work continues, and I am hopeful that with the Class of 2017, I will shake the hands of more APS graduates than ever before!