• 76.7% goal: Public grad rate rises, still room for improvement
    May 22, 2015, 5:00am CDT
    by William Poe

    Malik Avery  
    “I am in a lot better place than I was before.” Malik Avery, Student

    Malik Avery had dropped out of the St. Louis Public Schools for two years before the school district’s so-called dropout recruiter convinced him to return to the classroom. Today, Malik is not only a 2013 Sumner High School graduate, but he is a freshman biomedical engineering student at St. Louis Community College - Forest Park.

    “I am in a lot better place than I was before,” 19-year-old Avery said. His plans now include attending a four-year university and eventually medical school.

    Avery is the personification of one program the district has implemented to raise its high school graduation rate — a goal shared by the district and the St. Louis business community.

    “Talent is becoming scarce as the economy improves,” said Kathleen Osborn, executive director of the Regional Business Council. “Employers need professional growth here to fill available jobs.”

    The first step is improving the high school graduation rate, and the district has done that for the last four consecutive years, said St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams. The graduation rate in 2011 was 53.72 percent; 62.25 percent in 2012; 67.82 percent in 2013 and 71.26 percent in 2014. The district’s target this year is 76.7 percent, Adams said, which compares with the statewide target of 92 percent.

    Despite the improvement, the district’s 2014 graduation rate remained well below the 87.34 percent average for all Missouri school districts. Most area school districts performed much better than did the St. Louis schools, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The Kirkwood School District, for instance, in 2014 graduated 98.88 percent of its students. Francis Howell’s graduation rate was 93.79 percent; Mehlville, 94.07 percent; and Parkway, 92.62 percent. At least two St. Louis-area districts in Missouri fared worse last year than the St. Louis district — University City, with a graduation rate of 68.64 percent; and the Normandy Schools Collaborative, at 61.46 percent.

    Some high schools in the St. Louis district graduate a high percentage of their students, Adams said. “Metro (High School) has a 100 percent graduation rate,” he said. “And we have several schools in the 90s.”

    Other schools, he said, sharply reflect problems endemic to the district: high rates of poverty and transient families.

    The St. Louis Public Schools, whose preschool to grade 12 enrollment was about 26,084 as of April 30, also found that its kindergarten and first grade students “are a little further behind than those in our suburban districts,” prompting the district to enhance its early-grade literacy curriculum, said David Hardy, deputy superintendent of academics.

    Using part of the 2011 court settlement in the state’s long-running desegregation case, the district allocated $23 million over three years to expand its early childhood program, including adding 38 preschool classrooms. The district has continued to fund expanded preschool as part of its annual budget, which was about $286.1 million for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

    Another key program, called Check and Connect, seeks to identify eighth and ninth grade students at risk for dropping out. About 400 such students have been indentified over the past four years, and nearly all have remained in school, Hardy said, as teachers and counselors focus resources on those students.

    Another program targets students who already have dropped out. Dropout Recruiter Charlie Bean said over the past five years, he has located more than 1,800 dropouts and convinced 235 of them to re-enroll and graduate.

    Those and other programs are part of a five-year High School Graduation Initiative funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant. The $2.1 million-per-year grant ends in September, and the district is hoping the programs can be continued with other district revenue, Adams said.

    Some may come from business. Since 2009, the Regional Business Council has provided more than $1.5 million to the St. Louis Public Schools for elementary and secondary education enhancement programs. It also provides financial support for programs in four north St. Louis County school districts — Ferguson-Florissant, Riverview Gardens, Jennings and the Normandy Collaborative.

    William Poe is a St. Louis freelance writer.