March 5, 2017

Editorial: Grad, dropout numbers speak well of Worcester schools

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Flickr / Alberto G.

Worcester Public Schools are set to ring the bell on a new year.

Speechifying about education can put even the most ardent supporters to sleep. But data speak in clear, clipped sentences.

“Good job,” the rows and tables of numbers in the state’s annual graduation and dropout reports, released Tuesday, told the city of Worcester.

In recent years the city’s public school system has steadily upped its game on both figures.

Viewed across a decade, the difference is dramatic. While in 2006 the four-year graduation rate in Worcester was a poor 67.2 percent, last year it reached 81.9 percent, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported. Similarly, the dropout rate has improved from 2007-2008’s worrisome 4.7 percent to last year’s 1.9 percent.

This change is real, and reflects concerted and thoughtful efforts to make our schools better performers on the many elements — not all of them measurable — that make up education.

Of course as a self-respecting school district, these marks also say: Needs improvement.

There are still far too many students who give up on school, or who stick it out but don’t graduate in the typical four-year progression. And year after year, the graduation and dropout numbers point out significant gaps when broken down by race, economic background, gender (with girls consistently more likely to stay in school and graduate) and other factors.

Still, an 81.9 percent graduation rate and a 1.9 percent dropout rate is a report card to be hung proudly on the refrigerator door.

Credit goes to teachers, administrators, community leaders, parents and the students themselves for taking their roles seriously. They put in the hours, effort and belief that show in the state’s rows and tables of statistics. Gradually, success builds on success in our schools, with incalculable benefits.

A data-driven approach has been part of the answer in improving the city’s graduation and dropout rates, David Perda, the school system’s chief research and accountability officer, told the Telegram & Gazette. Armed with stark data, school staff can, for example, target efforts toward dropout prevention and other goals, beginning in the lower grades.

There is tremendous value, too, in asking the right questions. That can get at the cause of problems, and help show the path to better school experiences and outcomes.

In the same T&G report last Wednesday, Worcester Superintendent Maureen F. Binienda said: “We’re looking at every component. We’re not just saying, ‘This student isn’t here.’ We’re saying, ‘Why aren’t they here’?”

In terms of graduation and dropout rates Worcester is not only improving on its own past performance, it’s catching up to the state average. That’s especially noteworthy in light of the fact that those state averages have also made strides.

Massachusetts’ four-year graduation rate in 2006 was 79.9 percent. Last year, it was 87.5, rising for the 10th straight year. The two figures for Worcester’s public school system — 67.2 percent (2006) and 81.9 percent (2016) — show that in a decade, the city made an even bigger leap than the state.

The state’s dropout rate in 2007-08 was 3.4 percent, improving to 1.9 percent in 2015-16. The city, meanwhile, improved from 4.7 percent in 2007-08 to the same average as the state’s, 1.9 percent.

As a large and highly diverse urban school district, Worcester faces just about every challenge in the book when the kids walk through the door. It does not post the often impressive academic results of smaller, wealthier communities. But as of last year, the city is at the state average on dropout rates and is not too far off from attaining the state’s average graduation rate.

Of course, education is not a contest and students are not statistics.

But as indicators of the overall health and success of a school system — not to mention the enormous lifelong difference a diploma can make to anyone who earns one — dropout and graduation rates matter deeply.

The undeniably positive trends told by the data are cause for both celebration and motivation.

We want Worcester to continue pushing hard on raising its high school graduation rate and lowering its dropout rate. It’s vitally important, too, to keep standards high; a diploma needs to remain attainable but also tough to get in terms of the learning, commitment and all-around competency it represents.

Student by student, and for the community, in countless ways, the precious years of school are worth the work.

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