A Miraculous Turnaround in Richmond’s High School Graduation Rate

by James A. Bacon

For at least three years running, the City of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) ranked as the school system with the lowest graduation rate in Virginia. Yet, despite the travails of a COVID epidemic that kept most students home most of the time, school officials are projecting a 14 percentage-point increase in the graduation rate to almost 85%, with the most dramatic gains seen among Latino and economically disadvantaged students.

“We’re finally gaining traction based on the past three years of our efforts,” said Tracy Epp, RPS’ chief academic office, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

How did such a turnaround take place, even as many students struggled with Internet connectivity or studied at homes where working parents could provide no supervision?

Such a dramatic change of fortune sounds too good to be true — and perhaps it is. There is abundant anecdotal evidence from around the state of students logging into classes and turning off the audio and video feeds. But let’s give RPS the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps adversity inspired everyone to rise to the occasion. What do school officials say made the difference?

By way of background, it is important to note that before the arrival of Superintendent Jason Kamras, Richmond schools were misusing administrative tricks to inflate the graduation rate. After Kamras cleaned up the abuses, the graduation rate dropped as low as 70% compared to a statewide rate of more than 91%.

Joe Pasani, principal of George Wythe High School, said he kept his expectations high and refused to accept excuses. “I think there was a strong administrative focus on ‘Do we know each graduate? Do we know their story? And do we know what we need to do to ensure they graduate?’”

Latino students saw the most extraordinary gains — from 33% graduating the previous year to 60% in 2021. City schools had struggled with the Latino students, most of who were English learners. Latino enrollments had increased by 60% over five years to reach more than 5,000 last year. An audit found that 9th and 10th graders were being placed in general education ELL classes that did not earn them credits toward graduation. (The article did not say what changes school officials made to count more credits.) Also, the Con Ganas program, which serves English language learners who “might not fit a traditional school model,” created a center where students could do dropout recovery. A team of liaisons visited the homes of dropouts and potential dropouts in the hopes of getting them back in school. The liaisons would try to identify the problems and offer options like night school or virtual learning.

Do the statistics reflect real changes in student behavior and real gains in learning, and not just a collapse in standards? The only way to know for sure may be to get real-world feedback from employers. Are Richmond’s high school graduates functionally literate and numerate enough to perform the kinds of jobs that high school students are supposed to be able to do? For the good of the children and the reputation value of a Richmond high school degree, I hope so.

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6 responses to “A Miraculous Turnaround in Richmond’s High School Graduation Rate”

  1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    Sounds like they used the same statisticians as Charlottesville. 86% gifted correlates nicely to an 85% graduation rate.

    1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
      Baconator with extra cheese

      It also helps when those pesky reading and math tests don’t get in the way.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Richmond has the same problem that other schools have that have high percentages of economically disadvantaged which includes single parent families, minimally-educated parents that qualify for only the lowest scale jobs, etc.. and are of little help to their kids as well-educated parents are.

    Sherlock actually has shown some school systems actually do well with these kids but others like Richmond do struggle.

    You can bet also – that a new teacher out of college that has options for employment are more likely to go where the schools don’t have these issues.

    Richmond won’t do good things for most teachers careers. They’ve got to love teaching and love kids no matter how their careers turn out.

    Not all teachers are that giving…

  3. WayneS Avatar

    The comments attributed to Principal Joe Pasani give me hope that these gains are legitimate, and I genuinely want them to be.

    It would be a “hate crime” against these students to let them “slide by” just so some school administrators could make themselves look good.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Oh pleeze. Are you kidding me?

    “Students didn’t have to test last spring when the U.S. Department of Education waived federally required tests and the state cancelled its own. It was the first spring since 1998 without SOLs.”

    If verified credits were in place we would see a continuation of the decline or stagnation of SOL scores 2015 to 2019.

    Richmond’s numbers this year deserve the asterick that Roger Maris has.

    1. Matt Hurt Avatar
      Matt Hurt

      A bunch of kids across the state who hadn’t earned their verified credits due to failure to pass the SOL test in previous years were given a pass last year, as well as all of those who enrolled in those SOL courses last year. This year, emergency authorization was provided to divisions so that they could award a locally verified credit to students who passed the course and scored at least a 350 on their SOL test. Please keep in mind that in normal times a passing score is 400. I imagine that graduation rates will improve everywhere.

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