Why Is New Orleans' Graduation Rate Stuck?

Jun 10, 2018

At the end of George Washington Carver High School's graduation ceremony held at Xavier University at the end of May, hundreds of graduates in their white caps and gowns flood out of the auditorium to meet their families. The Carver band is playing. Girls are pulling off their high heels and unzipping their robes so they can really break it down.

In the middle of it all is newly minted graduate Darenisha Smith. She's happy and a little overwhelmed.

"Tomorrow I'm not waking up for school," she says wide-eyed. "Like, I'm done like, that’s it!"

But Smith says there were many times when she didn't think she would make it to this day. Smith says she really struggled in her freshman year. But then she started taking a drama class with a teacher she loved. She also made more friends. That's what kept her going. Now she’s going to study massage therapy at  Blue Cliff College.

"And that’s going to be a good thing for me because I got a lot I’m thinking about, and a lot I want to do," she says.

Members of Carver's newest class of graduates break it down in celebration of their accomplishment.
Credit Jess Clark / WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

More kids like Smith are graduating from Carver. The rate graduation increased from 62 percent to to 70 percent last year. That's about the average graduation rate for Orleans Parish too. The parish's public schools have come a long way since 2005, when only 54 percent of students graduated in four years. But for the last several years, the city’s graduation rate has plateaued.

"Like, I'm not learning anything. What's the point of me being here when I could be working somewhere to get myself financially stable?" - former student Christopher Prior

"OK, we're in the 70s. That's still not good enough. Now what's next?" Carver high school principal Jerel Bryant asks himself.

Bryant says Carver has improved the graduation rate by targeting kids they think might drop out, and by making school more fun. He says the school continues to improve instruction and add extracurriculars like band and football. He says they've eased up on discipline, and added restorative practices to improve relationships between students and teachers. But for some kids, that's still not enough.

"For scholars who are new to this country," Bryant says, "for scholars who are overaged, for scholars who support families, or have families of their own, for scholars who have been incarcerated...now we're confronting a population with sincere challenges in which it will take, I think, more than just standard programing done at a high level to get students to graduate."

On a bench at A. L. Davis park in Central City, 19-year-old Christopher Prior is snacking on crawfish and watching some other teenagers play basketball. Prior dropped out in his junior year for a number of reasons that experts say are pretty common. First off, Prior says his school had some really bad instruction.

"It was a lot of distractions and stuff like that," he says. "The teacher, she really doesn't have control of the class." Prior described classes being interrupted by students taking calls on their cellphones, fights and other behavor problems.

There were issues at home, too. Prior is the oldest of nine, his family's budget is really tight, and he wanted to get a job. Prior figured if he could fend for himself, his parents would have more money to spend on his sisters and brothers. 

"My people could use the help," he says. 

Then he failed chemistry. That was the last straw.

"Like, I’m not learning anything. What's the point of me being here when I could, you know, be working somewhere to get myself financially stable?" he remembers thinking.

"Now we're confronting a population with sincere challenges" - Carver Principal Jerel Bryant

Prior dropped out and started working at a local restaurant. He got his GED a few months later, so he says he doesn't think dropping out will hold him back in the long-run. But on average, people with GEDs make less money than high school graduates, and are much less likely to get a college degree.

Back at Carver High School, Bryant says to keep increasing graduation rates, schools need to get creative about how to accommodate students who have families or challenges that come with poverty. Eighty-four percent of New Orleans public school students come from low-income families.

"Now we're at the point where we need to say, 'Are we designed as a school, given the population that we have, to increase the number year after year?'" Bryant says.

Bryant says Carver is going to try some new programs next year for students who work or are behind on credits. He hopes that will mean more students will get to celebrate their graduation New Orleans-style in years to come.

WWNO’s education reporting is supported by Entergy Corporation.