Gov. Dannell Malloy declared in New Haven that investment in urban education paid off with six consecutive years of higher graduation rates. Under the next governor, who inherits a fiscal mess, will Connecticut keep it up?
That question lingered in the background at an otherwise celebratory press conference at Wilbur Cross High School on Monday morning, where state and local school officials answered questions from education reporters and high-school journalists about how the state could maintain an upward swing in the number of students who graduate within four years.
“More students than ever before are earning high school diplomas,” Dianna Wentzell, the state’s education commissioner. “It’s a sign that the smart education strategies, embarked upon by Gov. Malloy’s vision and leadership, are making a real difference for children and families in our state.”
Last school year, for 42,508 students across Connecticut, the graduation rate bumped up half a percentage point, to 87.9 percent. Officials called that an all-time high, capping off six years of increases following six years of declines.
The increase was driven by gains in 33 under-performing urban areas like New Haven, known as “alliance” districts, that received $551 million in extra state funding over the past four years. Together, they scored 2.2 points higher.
“Those districts, that historically less was expected of, have actually produced greater results in this short period of time,” Malloy said. “The grad rates haven’t changed a whole lot in Darien and Westport; they’ve changed in this building.”
High-needs students, defined as those dealing with poverty, learning disabilities or language barriers, were also more likely to graduate on time, inching up 1.3 points to 78.1 percent from the year before. The 2,402 English-language learners statewide graduated at 68.4 percent, up 1.1 points, while another 12.4 percent are repeating this year.
Over time, the gap among racial groups has decreased. Over the last six years, the black-white gap has diminished to 12.7 points, from 18.2 points in 2011, and the Hispanic-white graduation gap has narrowed to 15.1 points, from 25.2 points in 2011. Asian students are still most likely to graduate, finishing at 95.5 percent.
There’s also a 5.8-point gap in gender. Female students are more likely to finish high school, but that divide shrank by less than half a percentage point this year.
New Haven’s gains outpaced those of the rest of the state. The citywide graduation rate went up 2.5 points, to 80.0 percent.
Most of the district’s high schools improved, led by a 17.9 percent jump at High School in the Community, along with solid improvement at Hill Regional Career, Wilbur Cross, Engineering Science University Magnet School and New Haven Academy. Three high schools, on the other hand, went backwards.
In the last five years, Wilbur Cross showed the third-biggest improvement in graduation rates of any school in the state, climbing 17 points higher than in 2013.
“That is a real turnaround,” Wentzell said. “It should serve as motivation for districts across Connecticut that hard work, combined with smart strategies, gives us great results.”
Malloy, who finishes his final term as governor this year, attributed the difference in graduation rates to changes in state funding six years ago, which put money into the urban areas that had more high-needs students but not the tax base to support them.
“I went around the state in 2012 to be yelled at by folks in the school systems” for proposing cuts to well-heeled suburbs like Derian and New Canaan, the governor said. “We laid out a broad new mission in education that was decidedly concentrated on producing far better results in urban systems than we had in the past.”
Malloy said that the investment paid off. Over the last six years, districts like New Haven showed a 16.1-point improvement in graduation rates.
But with cuts now landing on alliance districts and magnet schools, what should be done to keep moving the rates upward?
Carol Birks, New Haven’s new superintendent, pointed out how the extra funding was necessary to keeping schools like Wilbur Cross ahead. She said that Cross Principal Edith Johnson had used extra money to open a college and career center, pay for instructional coaches and focus on children’s trauma through the Alive! Program.
“Additional resources helped to move the school forward,” Birks said.
Malloy agreed. Cutting back would be a “gigantic mistake,” he said. “In fact, it would be reckless.” He added, “Whoever is governor next go-round needs to realize we’re not done. The graduation rate is going to go up even further, provided that the state remains as a partner.”
Ready To Graduate?
This wasn’t the first year that Malloy showed up at a New Haven high school to talk about graduation rates. Last spring, he visited the city’s other comprehensive high school, James Hillhouse, to tout their 29-point gains over five years — despite the criticism that had accompanied Garth Harries’s decision to break the school into four academies (a plan that has since been shelved).
Last school year, under new leadership, Hillhouse fell way behind, showing an 8.0 percent drop in its graduation rate. (Two other New Haven schools saw declines, too: Cortland V.R. Creed fell by 5.4 percent; Sound School, by 4.6 percent.)
The swings raise questions about whether graduation rates are a good measure for educational achievement. Did Hillhouse’s former students do more to earn a diploma than the last batch of seniors? Or did former administrators require less work to pass classes?
Looking at test scores, Hillhouse scored a one-point gain in both math and reading in 2015-16, during the same time its graduation rate increased. But next year’s test results won’t be out until February 2019 to see whether test scores also nosedived along with the reported graduation rates.
Principal Glen Worthy, who took over the job in 2016, said “a lot of variables” go into how many students make it through four years. Part of the problem is simply tracking students that transfer out of the district, particularly those who leave the state. “If we don’t know where these kids are, they’re a dropout,” which will cause a hit to the graduation rate, he explained.
“What do I have to offer them to ensure that they stay on track, whether it’s an internship or a certification in the trades? I just have to give our kids more options,” he said, citing new union apprenticeships as a model that has reduced absences and classroom incidents. “We have to give more options. We’re a comprehensive high school; we’ve got to be more comprehensive.”
Moving ahead, for any students in middle school and below, the state’s public schools will have to adjust to even stricter requirements to get a diploma.
That’s because in 2010, hoping to qualify for federal “Race to the Top” funds, the legislature mandated a minimum of 25 credits, up from 20 in years past. Those criteria are being phased in slowly, after a task force recommended giving schools more time to adjust.
Current seventh-graders will be the first class to earn their diplomas with the more stringent requirements, starting in 2023.