Graduation trend good, but too many families leave Madison schools

February 18, 2019

Madison shouldn’t get hung up on a single year of graduation data for city schools.

The trend over several years is more telling.

So while the four-year graduation rate for black students in the district fell by 7 percentage points to 65.6 percent in 2018, that was still an improvement from two years ago, and from several prior years. The trend has been steady improvement since this decade began, with a big jump in diplomas two years ago.

Only half of black students in Madison schools graduated on time in 2011. So even with last year’s decline, the 65.6 percent who graduated in 2018 is a more than 15 percentage point improvement from seven years ago.

The percentage of Hispanic students graduating in four years also has increased more than 20 points since 2011, to 80.6 percent.

The district still has a long way to go to close achievement gaps between minority and white students, 87.8 percent of whom graduated on time last year. Some key factors are outside the control of our schools.

But the general pattern is one of progress. And when the percentages of students who graduate within five years are tallied, 78.2 percent of black students, 85.2 percent of Hispanic, and 92 percent of white students in the class of 2017 have earned diplomas.

Across Wisconsin, 89.6 percent of high school students graduated on time in 2018, including 69.3 percent of blacks, 82.3 percent of Hispanics, and 93.5 percent of whites.

The academic success of students is important because it increases the prosperity and happiness of citizens.

But another statistic also needs attention, especially in Madison. Our schools must be a place of pride where the vast majority of parents want to send their children. Unfortunately, the families of more than 1,246 students last year choose to transfer out of the district. That compares to 442 students and their families who chose to enroll in Madison from another district. Overall, that’s a net loss from Madison of more than 800 students, costing millions in state aid.

The Madison School Board’s long, tiring and damaging debate over whether to keep a single police officer in each of the city’s four main high schools is part of the problem. Given the scary number of school shootings across the nation, parents want to know their children are safe. One armed and highly trained officer in each high school is easily justified and reassuring — especially given the high caliber of school resource officers, all of whom are black or Latina.

Madison must do a better job of convincing parents that, in the interest of helping struggling and in some cases disruptive students, the district won’t sacrifice the overall educational environment for the vast majority of young people of all backgrounds who are behaving in class and want to learn.

Madison is holding a primary election for three School Board seats on Tuesday. Then the important discussion about K-12 education in Madison and across Wisconsin will intensify as voters prepare for the April 2 election.

Madison’s efforts to graduate more students and stem the flight of families from the district demand lots of attention.