Improving the district’s graduation rate by nearly 50 percent over five years takes a lot of people working together – and it will take a lot more to continue the trend.
So said Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, following the release of graduation rates for Grand Rapids Public Schools and other districts statewide. They showed GRPS’ rate has improved by 47 percent in five years, in a steady increase from 44 percent in 2011-12 to 65 percent in 2015-16. Its dropout rate fell from 22 percent to 12 percent over the same period.
Among the district’s 502 graduates, African-American, Latino, low-income and English-language learning students all showed significant gains.
City High/Middle School boasted a 98 percent graduation rate, while University Prep Academy and Innovation Central high schools both topped 90 percent. Ottawa Hills and Union high schools, however, lagged at 68 and 67 percent, respectively.
A Steady Five-Year Rise
|Group||2011- 2012||2012- 2013||2013- 2014||2014- 2015||2015- 2016||% Change Over 5 Years|
|English Language Learners||32.61%||29.44%||37.13%||54.48%||60.68%||+86%|
*The lower improvement rate of white students reflects a higher percentage of them being in special-education programs, including 42 percent of students from other school districts. The majority of those students have significant cognitive impairments and do not complete diplomas, instead receiving certificates of completion. Those are not counted as graduates. Source: Grand Rapids Public Schools
The overall jump of 21 points since Neal became superintendent five years ago owes much to the combined efforts of many, she said – teachers, staff, parents, community groups and, yes, students.
“It really has been a community effort,” Neal said by phone from Harvard University, where she was involved in a study program. “We have worked with every single stakeholder connected with our students to get them to understand the importance of doing what it takes to get there.”
The gains reflect changes made by the districtwide Transformation Plan, a comprehensive school improvement plan launched under Neal, officials said. That includes being “laser-focused on kids,” Neal said, “looking at what are the barriers and how do we remove those barriers?”
Making Students Responsible
Students themselves have been a big part of the effort, she added, noting that seniors are brought together in November for a final push toward what they need to graduate. They are convened again in May — but only those who have reached the finish line.
“It’s getting students to understand ‘you own this,’ having them understand they’re responsible for their own learning,” Neal said. “It’s been a family approach, and we’re seeing the results of it.”
Despite the strong progress, however, the overall rate of 65 percent remained well below the state average of 79 percent. GRPS officials said the district rate rose to about 77 percent, however, when those in special-education and alternative schools for struggling students are not included.
Neal insisted she is not concerned about the disparity, calling it a “misleading” comparison. She noted GRPS requires 22 credit-hours, while the majority of other districts require 18 – a difference of eight classes. Further, GRPS provides many special-education programs for not only city students but those from other districts. Many of those students earn certificates, not diplomas, but state rules count them against the GRPS graduation rate, she said.
“I know positively we will be above the state average,” Neal said. “We will continue up this hill. The formula works.
“I’m not concerned at all. It’s just a matter of time.”