Richmond Public Schools ranked as the school system with the lowest graduation rate in Virginia three times in the past three years.
But now, following a tumultuous virtual year amid the coronavirus pandemic, RPS anticipates a 14 percentage point boost in its graduation rate, with Latino students and economically disadvantaged students seeing the most significant gains.
While the school division will not have official numbers until later in the year when the state releases its annual report, school officials feel confident they will see double-digit gains because of years of unique thinking on traditional school and more individualized engagement.
For the 2020-21 school year, 85.7% of Richmond public school students will graduate on time, according to preliminary figures. Last year, only 71.6% of the city’s students did so, according to RPS.
“This is the culmination of three years we’re seeing that we’re finally gaining traction, based on the past three years of our efforts,” said Tracy Epp, RPS’ chief academic officer, of the projected upticks in graduation numbers.
George Wythe High School in Richmond’s South Side is expected to see the biggest improvement this year, with the largest dropout decrease and the highest graduation increase. The school’s projected graduation rate is 67%, up from just 50% last year, and the dropout rate decreased by 17 percentage points, with 29.3% dropping out, down from 46.9% last school year.
“In spite of COVID-19 ... you continued to excel,” Richmond School Board Chairperson Cheryl Burke told George Wythe graduates at The Diamond on Wednesday. “You, Class of 2021, are history makers. You have a story to tell. ... Don’t let anyone ever tell you what you cannot do, what you do or don’t deserve, because you have proven that you deserve the best and then some.”
Many graduates describe the virtual year as stressful, ridden with difficulties connecting to the internet and nearly giving up on school altogether because of the pressure of balancing jobs, and even a few balancing high school with children of their own.
For Shania Thornton, who graduated from Wythe on Wednesday, her 1-year-old daughter motivated her to finish but also made it stressful at times.
“It was tough, but I managed to get through it,” Thornton said. “It was hard to stay focused. Sometimes it was connectivity issues to where I couldn’t join class, so I missed class a lot. Or me dealing with my 1-year-old and work and school at the same time.”
Toward the end of the school year, Thornton almost called it quits until she found out she would have to complete summer school if she didn’t get her work in. With the help of staff at Wythe, she got it all done.
Harold Aquino-Guzman, Wythe’s valedictorian, said he was happy to hear that more students would be graduating from his now-alma mater.
“I’m just glad people are graduating,” he said in an interview. “That’s the best I can say, whether it be a couple more than it was last year, as long as people are graduating from high school, I’m just happy for everyone.”
Joe Pasani, the principal at Wythe, said he knew the year was tough for students, but 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?’” he said. He also took advantage of some of the systemic shifts that RPS has implemented, like allowing students who cannot attend school during the day to do so at night.
The city’s Latino students, while still having the lowest graduation rate this year of all subgroups, increased their graduation rate from 33% to 60%.
“Our Latino graduation rate was unconscionable,” Epp said of last year’s 33% rate. “And it didn’t just happen overnight. Just like you don’t gain weight overnight, or you don’t develop heart disease overnight, this doesn’t just happen.”
RPS has struggled with preparations for a growing Latino population in South Richmond. State data shows that the Latino student population in the city’s public schools has nearly doubled in the past five years, from 3,074 in 2015 to more than 5,000 this year.
At Wythe, 121 of the 164 Latino students dropped out early on during the 2019-20 school year. Just 37 graduated, leaving the school with a graduation rate below 25% for Latino students. At Huguenot High School, 90 of the 150 Latino students dropped out early on during that school year, leaving just 60; 45 Latino students graduated from Huguenot in 2020.
Overall, only 1 in 3 Latino students in Richmond graduated on time.
Some of the barriers for graduation for Latino students go hand in hand with barriers for English language learners. Most of RPS’ ELL population is Latino, and Epp admitted that RPS, along with other school districts, was not necessarily prepared to serve the growing population. An audit found that ninth- and 10th-graders were being placed in general education ELL classes that did not give the students credit toward graduation.
This year, 60% of Latino seniors are projected to graduate on time. While Epp says RPS has more to accomplish, she is still proud of the work of Con Ganas, as well as more individualized engagement efforts to get student dropouts to come back to school.
Con Ganas, a program that serves English language learners who might not fit a traditional school model, has seen much success, according to Epp. The district also created the Secondary Success Center, where students can do dropout recovery.
While the programs for dropout recovery exist, Epp said students first have to be persuaded to utilize them. Under the direction of Shadae Harris, RPS’ chief engagement officer, a team of liaisons goes out to homes of those who are considering dropping out or have dropped out in hopes of getting them to come back to school.
The office individualized those efforts by creating specific profiles of students before coming to their homes, where liaisons are fully aware of how many credits a student might have left and whether that student is facing barriers like a job or a child, then offer options like night school or virtual learning.
Seniors in Richmond schools had the lowest graduation rate in the state when Jason Kamras took his seat as superintendent, and the Virginia Department of Education found the district was overusing applied studies diplomas, which are usually for students with disabilities. The VDOE also found the district was misusing locally awarded verified credits and offering non-board-approved courses.
Those practices, officials say, inflated the graduation rate then. The overhauling efforts dropped the on-time graduation rate from 79% to 75% in 2017-18. The following school year, the graduation rate went down even further to 70%, then ticked up to 71.6% last year. In 2018, Huguenot saw the lowest graduation rate in the district, at 67%. This year, Huguenot’s projected graduation rate is 84%.
Virginia’s average graduation rate in 2020 was 92.3%, state data shows. While RPS isn’t there just yet, school officials seem optimistic about trending upward.
“This is just the beginning,” Epp said. “It’s not by any means the end, because high school graduation is a necessary milestone to really begin a child’s post-secondary future.”