CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A 90 percent graduation rate by 2014 is a realistic goal for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, especially if the community rallies to the cause, officials said this week.
"We need a movement," said board Chair Eric Davis, who suggested that kindergarteners should write "Class of 2024" on their papers to set their minds on graduation.
Last year almost 74 percent of CMS students graduated on time, up from 66 percent in 2009 but below the state average of 78 percent.
This year's goal for CMS is 80 percent, with no school below 60 percent, said Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark. In 2013, graduation rates could get a bump when the credits required for a CMS diploma drop from 28 to 24. The state requires 20, but most districts add to that.
Lofty academic targets are rampant in CMS and around the country, and are often swept aside when they're not met. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires 100 percent of students to be performing at grade level on reading and math exams by 2014, a demand that is now widely dismissed as unrealistic.
Board member Trent Merchant said he had the same reaction to the 90 percent goal until he realized that would mean adding about 1,500 students to the current crop of graduates. CMS had almost 6,900 graduates last year.
"There's 900,000 of us here," he said Wednesday, referring to the population of Mecklenburg County. "Can't we find a way to find the resources for 1,500 kids?"
Clark told the school board that nonprofit and philanthropic groups, such as the YMCA Achievers, Project LIFT and Communities In Schools, are helping CMS reduce its dropout rate.
Partnerships with police, judges and social workers are also helping, she said, and the privately funded Parent University is educating families about keeping students in school.
Clark highlighted the 93 percent graduation rate at the majority-black Mallard Creek High in northeast Charlotte. On average, African-Americans trail whites by significant margins in CMS and statewide; the 2011 on-time graduation rate for African-Americans in CMS was 67 percent - and only 58 percent for black males.
Mallard Creek graduated 93 percent of its black students and 91 percent of low-income students on time.
Specialized schools such as Cato, Harding and Berry, which have selective admission, have logged high graduation rates for African-Americans, but Mallard Creek is a neighborhood school that takes everyone.
Founding principal Kelly Gwaltney, who was recently promoted, told the board her staff tracked each student's progress and followed up with students who were at risk. She has also said middle-class and lower-income parents team up to support the students.
Board member Rhonda Lennon said parents will be key to pushing the additional students to graduation. And Richard McElrath urged CMS to develop strong career-training programs to ensure that students who don't choose college graduate with job skills.