March 12, 2017

Editorial: Summit seeks to improve Worcester graduation rates

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Faced with a problem, it never hurts for educators, leaders, agencies and parents to put their heads together.

This Friday, March 17, a summit will be held at WPI to do just that.

Sponsored by Worcester State University’s Latino Education Institute, the “Language of Excellence” gathering will focus on getting more of the city’s young people — particularly those for whom English is not their first language — to finish high school.

It is a “GradNation” event, a term that’s probably unfamiliar to most in Worcester.

GradNation is the signature effort of America’s Promise Alliance and has a straightforward goal: to see the nation’s four-year high school graduate rate get to 90 percent by 2020. The foundation was created and first chaired in 1997 by former Army Gen. Colin Powell, who also served as U.S. Secretary of State.

In Worcester, as the Sun noted last week, the on-time high school graduation rate reached 81.9 percent in 2016. According to the latest figures from the White House, the national rate was 83.2 percent as of the 2014-15 school year; that year, Worcester, at 80.8 percent, was more than 2 percentage points shy of the national rate.

Worcester’s four-year graduation rate has been steadily rising the last decade, but in 2016 was still more than 5 percentage points below the state average of 87.5 percent. And Massachusetts’ relatively strong average still falls short of GradNation’s 90 percent benchmark.

There’s work to be done.

That’s particularly clear after a deeper look at the state figures.

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education statistics show that in Worcester in 2016, the four-year graduation rate for ELL (English language learners) was only 74.3 percent. Other cohorts — including students with disabilities (61.5 percent graduation rate), students from low-income families (79.9 percent graduation rate), and Hispanic/Latino students (77.1 percent graduation rate) and others — also affect the city’s overall graduation rate.

As we wrote last week, it is to the schools’ credit that they have pushed graduation rates consistently higher in the last decade. That is a multifaceted challenge for such a large and diverse district as Worcester’s. Work, innovation and heartfelt dedication are behind the results.

Friday’s GradNation summit — which is free and open to the public — is an example of the kind of thought and collaboration that makes Worcester not only a deliverer of education, but a willing student of it.

The gathering is the first GradNation event to be held in Worcester. It will also be the last. The national effort, which is funded by AT&T, planned for 100 GradNation Community Summits over a period of four years, each with a local focus. Friday’s event here happens to be the 100th.

Leaders, including City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. and Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen F. Binienda, will be on hand. And it won’t all be talk. Planners say that in addition to examining methods for raising graduation rates for all students, the forum will develop a multi-year community plan — complete with procedures for assessing progress — to better support students who are English-language learners.

A statement last week from WSU’s Latino Education Institute said attendees — educators, community officials, business leaders, parents and youth in Worcester — will come together “to identify the importance of valuing and leveraging cultural and linguistic assets to build the next generation of leaders.”

Others taking part in the event include the Worcester Education Collaborative, Worcester Regional Research Bureau, Greater Worcester Community Foundation, African Community Education, and Ascentria Care Alliance.

We are grateful that so many people in Worcester understand the life-changing importance of students crossing the stage on Graduation Day, prepared for a challenging and exciting future. Many students overcome significant setbacks to get to that day, often helped overtly or behind the scenes by the work and caring of the community around them.

The summit runs from 12:30 to 6 p.m. March 17 in Alden Hall, Worcester Polytechnic Institute. For more information and to RSVP, click here.

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