On the uptick

Greater Memphis gets encouraging report on student graduation rates

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air at the conclusion of their 2016 graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

Graduation rates for most Memphis-area schools climbed in 2015-16, with the city’s largest district enjoying an increase of almost 4 percent to 78.7 percent.

While well below the statewide average of 88.5 percent, the increased rate puts Shelby County Schools ahead of pace to reach the goal of 90 percent in its Destination 2025 strategic plan.

It’s also the second straight increase for the district, which saw a slight bump in 2014-15 based on about two dozen high schools.

“I’m extremely proud of this accomplishment,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a statement released Tuesday. “So much credit goes to our teachers, school leaders and district staff who work so hard every day to implement effective strategies for preparing our students for on-time graduation.”

Graduation rates for other Memphis-area districts were also up, except for in Millington and Tennessee’s Achievement School District:

  • Arlington Community Schools rose 1 percent to 96.4 percent;
  • Bartlett City Schools up 3.1 percent to 88.6 percent;
  • Collierville Schools rose 1.1 percent to 92.4 percent;
  • Germantown Municipal Schools increased 4.9 percent to 94.4 percent;
  • Millington Municipal Schools fell 3.1 percent to 81 percent.
  • The Achievement School District’s rate dropped more than 7 percent to 40.4 percent.

It’s significant to note that the ASD is tasked with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools. Its graduation rate is based on four state-run high schools in Memphis, including two alternative schools.

“The dip in grad rate isn’t reflective of fewer ASD students graduating overall,” said Margo Roen, chief of strategy and portfolio management. “Instead it speaks to the challenges that many of our students have in graduating on time based on the number of earned credit hours they have when their schools join the ASD.”

Meanwhile, the statewide graduation rate of 88.5 percent is the highest on record since Tennessee changed to a more rigorous calculation of graduation rates in 2011. The state reported that about 60 percent of Tennessee’s 146 districts saw their graduation rates increase or stay the same when compared with last year’s rates.

Tennessee’s rising graduation rate received accolades from a national group last year for consistently outpacing the rest of the nation. However, another recent study pointed out the “jaw-dropping” gap between graduation rates and college readiness for black students in Tennessee. Seventy-eight percent of the state’s black students graduated from high school in 2013, but only 4 percent tested as college-ready in all four ACT-tested subjects, according to the report.

“… As more Tennessee students are earning their diplomas, we must ensure that they are all leaving with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tuesday.

Other highlights of Tennessee’s 2015-16 graduation report include:

  • Twelve districts improved their graduation rates by 5 percentage points or more. Districts with the most significant gains were Alvin C. York, 18.1 percent; Tullahoma City, 11.6 percent; Trenton Special School District, 11.1 percent; and Grundy County, 10 percent.
  • 95 districts — over 70 percent of the districts in the state — have graduation rates at or above 90 percent, up from 81 districts last year. Fentress County, Alcoa City, South Carroll Special School District, Milan Special School District, Meigs County, and Crockett County all had graduation rates at or above 99 percent.
  • 76 districts — roughly 60 percent of districts in the state — had graduation rates at or above 90 percent for both 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Where the jobs are

Chicago invests $12 million into expanding pathway to construction trades

PHOTO: PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits Prosser Career Academy Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, to announce a $12 million investment in vocational education.

What happens when Mayor Rahm Emanuel headlines a pep rally in a sweltering, Northwest Side high-school gymnasium to promote a $12 million investment in vocational education?

Lots of HVAC jokes, for one thing. And some students fanning themselves with the signs they’d been given that read “Thank you” and “Mr. Mayor.”

As he makes rounds in the city touting his accomplishments  — after announcing Tuesday that he would not run for reelection in February — Emanuel was flanked Thursday morning by luminaries from Chicago Public Schools, area trade unions and employers such as ComEd. On Wednesday, he dropped in on a pre-kindergarten class to push his early-education initiative.

Thursday, there was also lots of enthusiasm about the city’s push to develop career and technical education curricula, to bolster economic opportunity in the neighborhoods.

Part of a $1 billion capital plan announced over the summer, the $12 million investment at Charles A. Prosser Career Academy will expand the school’s vocational training beyond its current emphasis on the hospitality industry to include construction trades including carpentry, electricity and, of course, HVAC.  

Many welcome such initiatives as a long time coming. Vocational preparation has been deemphasized in favor of college-preparatory programs, said Charles LoVerde, a trustee of a training center run by the Laborers’ International Union of North America. He’s glad to see the investment.

The city’s current construction trades program launched in 2016 at Dunbar Career Academy High in predominantly black Bronzeville. Prosser makes access easier for West Side students, including the predominantly Latino residents of Belmont Cragin, where it is located.

“Dunbar is a great program, but my kids are not going to go to Dunbar because it’s just too far — it would take them two hours to get there,” said 36th Ward Alderman Gilbert Villegas, who pushed Emanuel to launch Prosser’s CTE program.

Access is important because CTE offerings are among the district’s most in-demand programs, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Demand is not even across demographics, however, with vocational programs more popular among low-performing students, students from economically isolated elementary schools, and black students, according to the report.

Almost one in five seats at district high schools focus on vocational education. But Dunbar’s — and now Prosser’s — focus on the construction trades has Emanuel and Villegas excited, because Chicago’s construction boom means that jobs are readily available.

“There’s not a building trade in Chicago — a carpenter, an electrician, a bricklayer, a painter, an operating engineer — that has anybody left on the bench,” Emanuel told the crowd at Prosser.

Villegas sketched out an idealized, full-career path for a graduate of the new program — one that includes buying a home and raising a family in Belmont Cragin. “I see it as a pipeline that would extend our ability to maintain the Northwest Side as middle class,” Villegas said.

The investment in Prosser comes as part of a broader, national effort to invest in career-technical education. In July, Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized  a national $1.1 billion program for job training and related programs.

The new program at Prosser not only will give more students access to training in the building trades, but also will provide proximity to some labor partners. The Laborers’ International Union of North America operates a training center less than a mile from Prosser, where students will have a chance to learn and also visit job sites, LoVerde said.

He said that college-track programs also have their place, but career education presents a clear path to a steady income.

“This gives [unions] a focused path to recruit and find students who are looking for a different path,” LoVerde said. “Becoming a career construction laborer is a job for life.”

future of work

Tennessee approves its first-ever computer science standards for K-8 schools

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

With regional jobs related to computer science going unfilled, Tennessee soon will introduce academic standards designed specifically to strengthen those skills beginning in elementary school.

The state Board of Education gave final approval Friday to Tennessee’s first-ever computer science standards for elementary and middle schools. The benchmarks will reach classrooms in the fall of 2019.

In the works for a year, they’ll replace computer technology standards that were last revised in 2011.

State officials say the current standards don’t capture the critical components of computer science, a growing field with jobs especially in healthcare, transportation, and banking. In 2015 across Tennessee, for instance, only a third of the 90,000 jobs posted for workers in IT, or information technology, were filled.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the employment gap represents a huge opportunity for students as the state also emphasizes instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM.

“We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is,” she told members of the board earlier this year. McQueen cited research showing that 50 percent of people who pursue STEM careers trace their interest to exposure in first or second grade.

“Getting kids interested really does matter at those very, very early ages,” she said.

For elementary schools, the new standards will focus on introducing students to the basics of computer systems and programs — and helping them learn about safe and responsible device practices, such as protecting private information and using passwords securely.

For middle schools, students will study computer-related calculations and information-processing skills used to create computer programs. They’ll also discuss “digital citizenship,” which covers how to interact safely with people and content online. And they’ll explore career opportunities related to computer science.

Except for instruction in coding and computer programming — which will be taught as a stand-alone class — the skills are to be integrated into existing core classes in English, math, science and social studies. They’re “things our teachers are already doing,” said Melissa Haun, math coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education, of most of the new computer science standards.

“We’re not asking teachers to do more things or give them a heavier workload. We’re asking them to be aware of the standards and be deliberate in how they can enhance their instruction with technology because we are in a very very digital world that moves very fast,” Haun told the state board in April.

"We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

School districts will have discretion on how to add coding and computer programming instruction to the mix. Many school systems already are piloting such curriculums after investing in digital devices in the ongoing transition to computerized state testing.

McQueen said coding represents “one of the most underutilized opportunities that we have.”

“If you can get kids to think like a coder and the problem-solving that occurs with that, … you can start to inspire them around opportunities,” she said. “That coding skill set, and the language of coding, opens up about 75 percent of jobs that they may have never thought about before.”

Computer science marks the latest new standards for Tennessee, which has or is in the process of revamping benchmarks in all four core areas of instruction.

New English and math standards start their second year this fall, new science standards are about to begin, and new ones for social studies reach classrooms in the fall of 2019, the same year of the first-ever standards for computer science.