Top priority

Published 8:24 pm Saturday, September 27, 2014

It seems lately that there has been a constant drip of bad news regarding Suffolk public schools. First came the recent announcement that poor performance on state Standards of Learning tests would result in fewer than half of Suffolk’s schools achieving full accreditation. Then, last week, came news that the city’s on-time graduation and dropout rates had both worsened slightly from last year, even as those rates improved slightly for other school systems in Hampton Roads.

To be fair, dropout and on-time graduation have improved from four years ago, and that’s the focus the system’s administrators chose to emphasize when they responded to the state’s announcement of the statistics on Wednesday.

“Overall, we have been pleased with the increase in the number of students graduating from our schools over the last four years,” district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw wrote in an email. “Our goal will be to continue to build on that progress by addressing the area(s) that caused the slight decline this past year both at the school and district levels.”

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In 2011, the on-time graduation rate was almost five percentage points lower than this year, and dropouts were two percentage points higher. So there has been real progress made on both issues — which educators generally consider to be two sides of the same coin.

In fact, Nansemond River High School saw its on-time graduation rate rise slightly last year to 92.3 percent, while its dropout rate fell more than a percentage point, to 3.6 percent. At the other end of the scale, however, Lakeland saw its on-time graduation rate fall to 82.9 percent and its dropout rate rise to 11.6 percent during the same period. King’s Fork’s rates were between its sister schools, but on the lower end of the performance scale.

Clearly something is going right at Nansemond River, while things continue to go wrong at the other two high schools. There will always be a tendency for some schools within a division to perform better than others. The socioeconomic makeup of the communities served by each of the schools has a documentably measurable effect on their achievement levels, even when all other factors are equal.

But in a division with only three public high schools, it is dangerous for the differences to be so stark. Parents considering moving their families to Suffolk could be expected to compare the achievement results of the three and make decisions about where to live based on their conclusions.

In the long term, those conclusions could be expected to drive more children from families with the means to carefully choose their neighborhoods to the schools that are doing well, which would simultaneously result in fewer high-achieving students at those schools that are doing poorly based on educational metrics. The resulting feedback loop could be devastating to schools on the low end of the achievement scale.

Students in Suffolk’s public schools should have a reasonable expectation of receiving a quality education, regardless of which school they attend. Raising the academic standards at Suffolk’s poorest — and worst-performing — schools should be the top priority of school administrators this year. There is no good excuse for a public school in 2014 to lose one in 10 of its students as dropouts.