October 11, 2008

Roanoke Schools Fail Their Students

Last year, 77.4 percent of high school seniors across Virginia graduated on time and with a standard or an advanced diploma. At Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, just 47.7 percent of its seniors did so. The rates released this week by the state Department of Education are not surprising. Yet, they are still stunning.

There couldn't be a teacher, parent, administrator, school board member or city taxpayer who didn't, at least momentarily, feel a mixture of anger, pessimism and, yes, even hopelessness in seeing how poorly Patrick Henry and William Fleming students are faring.

This time the disparity of graduation rates can't be explained away, as all schools were required for the first time to track every student. Now we know exactly how many fall behind despite the many federal and state mandates.

If the numbers are to change -- and they must -- the community needs to confront the evidence head-on and not only demand but support drastic changes.

Only bold initiatives will reverse the devastatingly low graduation rate. Thankfully, the school board and superintendent in the past year and a half have seemed willing to do exactly that.

Yet, their plans are often met with resistance based mostly on a fear of change. Complaints greeted the reversal of school start times, even though the change was made to make sure older students aren't sleeping through first period.

A policy that would have required student athletes to perform well in class was watered down because of so many complaints. If anything, the proposal should have been extended to all extracurricular activities.

Even the creation of an overage academy to keep in school kids whose educational age falls far below their physical age was opposed. Not the academy itself -- everyone agrees it is needed -- but that it would take over a building that housed a failing elementary school. Parents -- of pupils at a failing school -- wanted it saved.

Something is terribly wrong when people resist change just to cling to the familiar and the concept of "neighborhood" school when year after year evidence points to continued failure. High- schoolers don't drop out because all of the sudden in ninth or 10th grade their school careers go awry. Problems take root in kindergarten.

In the coming months, the school board is expected to roll out the most dramatic changes yet that will call for new attendance zones and the closure of some school buildings. The intent is to direct money to supporting students, not structures.

If Roanoke is ever to be average by state standards, every school board member, administrator, teacher, parent and taxpayer will need to recognize which is more important.

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