Graduation Rates Set Records, Despite Overcoming Pandemic Challenges


Photo courtesy of the Daily Progress

Jaya Vaidhyanathan, Staff Writer

Last year Charlottesville High School graduated more seniors than ever before and has consistently outperformed the commonwealth of Virginia’s average graduation rate. In 2020 CHS graduated 94.5 percent of it’s senior class and that number rose to 96.4 percent the following year. Virginia’s average graduation rate in 2020 was 92.3 percent. It then rose along with CHS to 93 percent in 2021. CHS’s previous graduation rate record was in 2019 when 95.7 percent of seniors graduated in four years. Despite standardized test scores dropping at the same time graduation rates were rising, teachers and administrators alike agreed that there has been overall improvement in preparation for students after highschool and the relationships built at the school. 

Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS), Nelson, and Charlottesville all saw a rise in their graduation compared to 2020. Buckingham, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa, Madison, and Orange all decreased the number of graduated seniors in 2021. Monticello High School graduated 95.1 percent of it’s seniors in 2021, which is the area’s lowest percentage. Albemarle High School graduation rate in 2021 was 96 percent, with the highest percentage in the area is Western Albemarle with 99 percent of it’s seniors graduating. 

The actual number of seniors graduating from CHS has to be taken into account as well. The percentage of the graduating class could show a different story from the numerical number of the seniors that graduated. In 2021, 269 seniors graduated out of 279. Only 10 kids did not graduate that year. In 2020, 285 seniors graduated compared to the approximately 301 seniors in the class, which means around 16 kids didn’t graduate. The change from 16 to 10 is not necessarily a significant change but still illustrates an odd anomaly compared to other central Virginia schools. 

2021 presented so many challenges to high school students that one would expect graduation rates to decrease, but CHS along with ACPS schools defied the odds. Why did CHS succeed greater than any other year prior? Was it because of the greater ability for students to cheat with online school? Or did CHS seniors commit themselves like never before to school?

Ms. Williams, who is a 12th grade English teacher, was interviewed about her thoughts on last year’s senior graduating class. She is a teacher who is known for helping seniors earn their diploma when they are at risk of not graduating. When asked about the hardships of last year and how last year’s students were different from the years prior, Williams said, “They were special. The seniors last year were an interesting group because they had been through so much. They were willing to try just about anything, and willing to ask questions, and admit when they didn’t know what was happening.” Williams goes on to explain that, “Every year it is a different challenge. Each senior cohort presents different challenges and for this one it was really ‘how do you navigate this insanity? How do you identify what’s most important in the 900 things that you can not control?’ I think the key to their success was saying ‘I can control this content area.’” When asked why she thinks CHS graduation rate is so high Willaims says, “Administrators, counselors and teachers are really invested. We want our kids to walk out feeling successful. We are willing to work together and make it possible for students to graduate.”

 The amount of investment that CHS puts into their students helps them in the short run but one could wonder if the constant support puts students behind in the real world. Ms. Williams says, “Are we enabling students? I worry that sometimes I do and to be truly honest there are times when I’m like ‘Am I helping?’ And in those moments that is when administrators and counselors are really powerful. I have been reminded [by admin] that the student has to make the choice first. You need to let those students make the choice. Do I think at times I have enabled our students? Yes. Do I think we’re moving to a point where we are able to support students, and counselors, teachers, and administrators are all talking to each other? Yes, we more often than not empowering students.”

There was a drop in students’ standardized test scores despite the rise in graduation rates. When asked about this, Ms.Williams said, “I think a part of it is a little bit of skewed data and the lack of learning is a political term because learning loss is the decline of skills demonstrated by standardized tests. It’s specific to one style of learning. We have walked away with students who are more resilient and capable of learning independently than any other class I have ever had. So I think they learned something different.” 

Ms. Terrell is the chair of the guidance department at CHS and she has years of experience helping students to graduate. Ms. Terrell says CHS helps students to graduate by, “wrapping our loving arms around each and every one of our students. We do not let any barriers get in the way for any of our students. We make sure that all of their basic needs are met. We just meet students where they are…As you’ve seen from the graduation rate, that really helps.” 

When asked about why she believes the graduation rate last year rose, Ms. Terrell says, “Because our students worked extremely hard and because of our teachers, administrators and school counselors. Basically it took a whole village. But I commend the students for all the work they did put in. We really built relationships. Even though we were virtual, it was still business as usual. We still met with students who needed to meet with us, we did home visits and we made sure that their basic needs were met.” Ms. Terrell believes that students last year did not learn any less content than years prior. She says, “Our teachers still taught the curriculum like they always do and our students who wanted to explore the curriculum a little more did get that opportunity to do so.”

 Ms. Terrell credits programs such as WALK, a credit recovery program, and the senior mentorship program to help get students in a better position to learn. In the 2019-2020 school year, many students did receive all A’s but Ms. Terrell pointed out that many students did not, and instead failed certain courses. Programs like WALK, as well as the overwhelming support given to students is what made CHS recover and flourish after a traumatic year. 

Dr. Irizarry, CHS’s principal, has seen graduation rates rise since he and his team have been at CHS. He says, “We have implemented our senior mentoring program. We have worked really hard with the senior teachers to identify students that might be struggling academically. We’ve also worked with our counselors to identify students that might be struggling socially and emotionally and that’s a wide range… It boils down to identifying [struggling] students, trying to identify their individual needs and providing resources to support them.” 

When asked why so much time and effort goes into raising CHS’s graduation rate, Dr. I said, “The graduation rate is one number. Schools exist to graduate students…I would say when you dig down a little more deeply, our goals are to prepare students for whatever they want to access after high school. If they want to go right into the workforce, we want to make sure that during their four years of high school, we prepare them for their work. If they are going to a four year college we want to make sure that they are prepared to do well in those courses. [The graduation rate] is a very important measure but I think there is work to be done to make sure that all of our graduates are given a wide range of opportunities.” 

Dr. I was asked about how he and his team were able to maintain and even increase the graduation percentage over the last two years when there was a documented drop in CHS’s standardized test scores. He said, “I think there were holes in instruction but, over all, our teachers did an incredible job at making sure that they were there. I think the relationships that they built with the seniors before we left for the pandemic paid dividends. We know who the kids are and our counselors know who our students are. It all comes down to relationships. If students feel connected to a school even when they are struggling, if they have one person in the building that they can count on or go to, I think that makes a difference with students.”

 Cheating has been a concern that could explain how students did so well last year, but Dr. I thinks that “Cheating is going to happen whether we are face to face or behind a computer. It happened before computers were here and it will always be there. I don’t think it is a large enough factor to say that it’s the reason why [the CHS graduation rate rose]. You know, I think it has to do more with going back to relationships and providing the best in a horrible predicament.”  

Dr. I is not overly excited with the small influx in the percentage. “Graduation rates, they ebb and they flow, they go up and down because really what you’re looking at is one group of students,” he said. “There are always those 2 to 3 percentage points up and down, even in a normal year. We’ve been able to build but next year we could go down. It’s a moving target and it is just one measure.” 

CHS has the resources and the professional help to get students over the line to graduate. The success CHS has seen is the result of teachers, administrators and counselors being in lockstep with each other and having a crystal clear vision on how they achieve their goals. The size of CHS and the support from the community also plays a major role in the school’s accomplishments. CHS students can continue to know that if they are willing to put forth the effort to graduate, they will have unwavering support behind them.