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Last week the Department of Public Instruction-Exceptional Children Programs presented to the Education Oversight Committee a report detailing the current state of educational service models for students with disabilities.  During this presentation it was revealed that 4 LEA's in 2006-2007 did not graduate a single student with a disability.  The report also disclosed that fewer than 42% of students with disabilities did not attain a Level III score or better on the End-of-Course tests. 

Late today we received the full, eighteen page report from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Exceptional Children Programs.   How many students with disabilities dropped out last year? 4,050. How many students graduated with a diploma? 5,179. How many students received a certificate? 1,011.  How do these dropout numbers compare to previous reports? In 2003-2004 there were 3,876 dropouts, and in 2004-2005 there were 3,799.  These numbers are based on youth with IEP's.

Who were those four LEA's that did not graduate a single student with a disability, and how many students were affected?  Now we know.  The 4 LEAs had a total drop out number of 56 students.  Scotland County had all 38 of its students with disabilities drop out.  That is 100%.  Scotland County was joined by Chatham County (4), Graham County (6) and Franklin County (8).  What was not mentioned in the presentation, but was included in the report was that five Charter schools also had a 100% drop out rate for students with disabilities.  These Charter schools are Central Park (1), Chatham Charter (1), Crossroads Charter High (2), Sandhills Theatre Arts Renaissance (1), and Woods Charter (1).

Three LEA's and eight Charter schools did manage to have 100% of students with disabilities exit with either a diploma or a certificate in 2006-2007.  The LEAs are Thomasville City Schools (9), Tyrrell County Schools (8), and Camden Schools (3).  The Charter schools are CG Woodson School of Challenge (1), East Wake Academy (2), Gray Stone Day (1), Hawbridge School (6), Kennedy Charter (5), Pace Academy (12), Raleigh Charter High (12), and River Mill Academy (3).

These sixty two children attending these four LEA's and Charter schools are just tip of the iceberg.  There are over 4,000 students with disabilities who did not get a cap and gown last year, who did not hear pomp and circumstance, and who did not receive a diploma or a certificate from their high school.  Clearly, we need to continue to challenge our schools to do more for students with disabilities, who deserve and should demand equitable educational opportunity. 

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The Education Oversight Committee met on Tuesday to hear a presentation on the status of students with disabilities in our public education system. During the 2007 long session the general assembly passed House Bill 17 (Session Law 207-295) which required the Department of Public Instruction to identify various models being utilized to deliver education and other services at the high school level to children with disabilities.
The presentation on Tuesday was a direct result of this law, and the numbers and recommendations left more questions than answers. Let’s start with the numbers.

In regards to student performance, “fewer than 42% of students with disabilities scored Level III or above on the 2006-2007 End-of-Course Tests in core academics.” Looking at service delivery models as dictated by House Bill 17, we learned that in 2006-2007 48,387 students with disabilities were enrolled in grades 9-12. Of those students, 51.4% spent 80% of their day in general education, 22.4% spent 40-79% of their day in general education (resource setting), 21.9% spent 39% or less of their day in general education (separate setting) and 4.3% were in a separate school or homebound educational setting.

The bombshell of the day came when the presentation turned to student outcomes. 6 LEAs (Local Education Agency) had over 80% of students with disabilities exit with a diploma. 24 LEAs had 75% of students with disabilities exit school with either a diploma, a graduation certificate or a certificate of achievement. However, how that percentage broke down among those categories was never specified. Then there were the 4 LEAs that had 100% of students with disabilities exit school as dropouts.

You read that correctly. In 2006-2007, 4 LEAs reported that 100% of the students with disabilities exiting school were dropouts. The presentation did not discuss which LEAs are in this last group or how many students are represented by this abysmal percentage. To me it does not matter if it is one student or 20 students. It does not matter if it is a small LEA or a large LEA. The fact that in 2006-2007 in these 4 LEAs not a single student with a disability exited with a diploma, or a certificate of achievement, or a certificate of attendance but simply dropped out is disgraceful.

We have got to stop throwing away our future. We need to invest in an equitable academic opportunity for youth with disabilities. As ruled in the Leandro vs. North Carolina, the North Carolina constitution mandates that all of our citizens have a right to a sound, basic education. All includes students with disabilities.

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What is it about four-year-olds that politicians finds so irresistible? Last week Governor Easley proposed taking lGov. Easley with preschoolersottery money slated for school construction and using it for his pet preschool program, More-at-Four. I think it has to do with the fact that four-year-olds make politicians look good. Besides being cute and providing good photo opportunities for politicians, four-year-olds can’t fail. There are no standardized performance tests that four-year-olds need to pass. There’s no measure of preschool graduation rates. No under-performance worries whatsoever to mar the Governor’s record since the results of this program will take years to manifest.

Don’t get me wrong, preschool programs and early interventions are important, but Enough-at-Four already. What about the older kids who are also at risk and need assistance? What about the 19-year-olds who haven’t finished high-school in four years, who are at risk of dropping out of school? New figures show that more than 3 out of every 10 high school student in North Carolina don’t complete high school in four years; many of these students drop out before earning a diploma. Unlike four-year-olds, these kids don’t have time on their side.

Sure pimply faced teenagers don’t offer the same photo opportunities as preschoolers but they need our help just as much, if not more. Political leaders need to put their reputations on the line with more programs for at-risk teens, programs that keep kids in school and train them for jobs that pay a living wage.

Governor Easley has initiated the Learn and Earn high school reform initiative with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  This program, which allows high school students to obtain both a high school degree and an associate’s degree, is a step in the right direction but it needs to be expanded statewide. Currently, there are 33 high schools in the program and 20 more planned. Let’s hope that Governor Easley’s affection for teenagers grows to equal his love for preschoolers.

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The state released the recalculated figures of high school graduation rates yesterday. While many school districts across the state struggle to come to terms with graduation rates in the sixty percent range, Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) is patting itself on the back. At 82.6%, Wake County has one of the highest graduation rates in the state, second only to Chapel-Hill/Carboro at 90.2%. But before the folks at WCPSS get carried away by their success, I’d like to serve up some humble pie.humble pie

An 82.6% graduation rate still means that almost 1 out of every 5 students is not graduating in four years. While better than the state average, those statistics are far from acceptable.

At closer look at the numbers reveals large discrepancies between subgroups, in particular

Students from the three risk groups (students with disabilities, students eligible for free or reduced lunches, and students with limited English proficiency) had graduation rates that were substantially below those of other students.

The graduation rates for these three subgroups were 62.8 (disabilities), 59.1 (free/reduced lunch), and 51.5 (limited English).

These new finding confirm that poverty has a significant impact on school success. Students whose families are struggling economically are also struggling academically.

I suspect that if we looked at these figures across the state, we will find that the counties with the lowest graduation rates also have the highest poverty rates.

If North Carolina wants to improve its academic performance then, ultimately, poverty must be addressed. Raising the minimum wage was a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to guarantee that all households enjoy a living income. A State Earned Income Tax Credit is another proven means of reducing the poverty rate that could, it seems fair to say, have a positive impact on the number of students graduating with a high school diploma.