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While York City district's grades improved, its graduation rate plunged

Pennsylvania Department of Aging Acting Secretary Robert Torres watches as Senior Corps Foster Grandparent Program participant Sandy Pamplin, of York City, works with kindergartener Dylan Guerra Avalos at Devers K-8 Thursday, May 23, 2019. Torres met with Community Progress Council representatives and members of its grandparent program in honor of 1-4-3 Day, dedicated to kindness in the name of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" late founder Fred Rodgers, a Pennsylvania native. Bill Kalina photo

Four-year graduation rates in York City School District declined sharply from 2014-15 to 2017-18, just as test scores began to improve — leaving only about 60% of students graduating in the minority-majority district.

At 58.77% in 2017-18, York City has the second-lowest four-year graduation rate among Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, behind Chester-Upland at 35.54%, according to data from the state Department of Education. 

Both Chester-Upland and York City were among four districts placed under state supervision in 2012 after the state Department of Education found them in need of financial recovery.

After the district started its current recovery plan in 2015-16, its graduation rate dropped a whopping 13.81% to 59.07% that year, improved slightly the next year, then fell to 58.77% — its lowest yet — in 2017-18.

About 85% of York City's students are minorities, district officials said.

Having a lower percentage of minority students graduating could be tied to national trends, district officials said.

"For whatever reason, you don’t know what’s happening with these families," said board member Michael Breeland, adding that some move or drop out, based on any number of factors that don't have to do with school.

In the 2017-18 school year — the most recent year with state data available — 59.31% of black students and 61.11% of Hispanic students in York City graduated high school. And less than half of all male students graduated that year. 

Black and male students not wanting to attend school is not something that just affects York City, Breeland added.

The national rate of high school students ages 15 to 24 between grades 10 and 12 who dropped out without receiving a diploma or GED increased from 3.8% in 2006 to 4.8% in 2016, according to a 2018 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 2016, that rate was slightly higher for black or male students, as well as low-income students.

But Superintendent Andrea Berry said poverty and other outside factors are not a reason for students not to graduate.

York City Superintendent Andrea Berry

"We’re not using our students' shortcomings as an excuse not to get them out of school," she said. "The truth of the matter is we have a responsibility as a district to make students college- and career-ready.

In the 2012-13 school year, the district had just begun its initial financial recovery plan and saw about a 9% increase — to 80.56% — in its four-year cohort graduation rate that year, according to state data.

The district reached its peak graduation rate of 81.41% the following year.

But in the 2014-15 school year, the graduation rate dropped about 8.5% to 72.88% — just below its rate in 2010-11, the earliest available cohort graduation rate data. 

The standardized test scores in York City jumped measurably in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the last two school years reported by the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System. But Berry and Breeland both said they don't believe there's a relation between the increased scores and plunging graduation rate.

More:State report card: York City district excels in growth; Central York, Dover struggle

But Berry admits that higher standards are harder for students to achieve. 

"As (students) move the target, it becomes more difficult to reach," Berry said, meaning as scores improve, graduation expectations become higher. "Not saying that’s a bad thing."

The adjusted cohort graduation rate was calculated nationally beginning in 2010-11, tracking all students graduating in four years who started ninth grade together. Unlike the average freshman graduation rate, it accounts for those who transferred or emigrated in or out versus being based solely on enrollment.

Even though the state uses a four-year rate, it's calculated based on three years of data, Berry said, so it does not reflect that extra year.

McKinley teachers Cherry Ferguson-Baptiste, left, and Talyn Smiley chat after receiving their awards during an awards ceremony for city teachers at the York City School District Administration Building Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. According to the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment, York City students throughout the district exceeded the standard for PA Academic Growth. “Shining Star” teachers were recognized during the event. Bill Kalina photo

Five-year and six-year rates are complicated, she said, but English language learners and students with disabilities who are given extra time to complete schooling could be a factor in those rates.

Scores are improving for the students who choose to stay, Breeland said.

And the district's financial recovery plans have helped it move toward academic success, according to Berry and Mass Insight — the education research agency that's monitored the district during financial recovery.

"The district has worked really hard on a lot of things," said Larry Stanton, a Mass Insight director who worked closely with the district.

One focus of the recovery plan was the Freshman Academy — and those efforts might take some time to show, he said.

Berry agreed, saying, "There was nothing in the recovery plan that caused us to lose ground."

"In fact, I believe that the recovery plan is responsible for a lot of growth we're seeing on PVAAS," she said, adding that she expects the school's K-8 students to see even more fruits of that labor by middle and high school.