What to do after high school?

The annual “Diplomas Count” report has joined the growing discussion about the value of a college degree.

Report cover imageThe 2011 version of the yearly graduation study from Education Week is titled “Beyond High School, Before Baccalaureate: Meaningful Alternatives to a Four-Year Degree” and is the latest in a spate of studies examining the value of college degrees.

“With the nation’s economic recovery seemingly stuck in low gear, the need to better understand the link between learning and a career seems more critical than ever for high school students preparing to graduate and enter the next phase of their lives,” according to the report summary.

“In the drive to ensure that American students leave K-12 schools ‘college and career ready,’ the major emphasis has been on the ‘college’ part—and especially on four-year colleges. While that’s a widely lauded goal, it hasn’t panned out for everyone.”

While the Diplomas Count study has a different emphasis every year, it always updates high school graduation rates and related indicators for the nation, states and school districts.

Here’s a summary of what the latest study found:

“The national graduation rate stands at 71.7 percent for the class of 2008 – the highest level since the 1980s. This year’s analysis shows that, from 2007 to 2008, the overall graduation rate for public high school students jumped nearly 3 percentage points. Each major racial and ethnic group posted gains of at least 2 percentage points, with African-American students showing the steepest improvement. African-Americans’ graduation-rate rise over the past decade, in fact, has contributed to a 2-percentage-point narrowing of the gap between black students and their white counterparts over that period. The report finds, however, that the graduation gaps between Latinos and whites and between Native Americans and whites have widened since 1999.”

The report noted the rate is “the highest level of graduation for the nation’s public high schools since the 1980s, [and] this result also marks a significant turnaround following two consecutive years of declines and stagnation.”

Colorado stats

The analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center found Colorado’s overall 2008 graduation rate was slightly above the national average at 73.3 percent.

Colorado’s gender gap basically mirrored the nation, with 77.1 percent of girls and 69.7 percent of boys graduating.

The state and the nation both show significant ethnic graduation gaps, but Colorado’s American Indian (49.3 percent) and Hispanic (52 percent) graduation rates were lower than national averages. The state’s black graduation rate (61.7 percent) was higher than the national rate.

Colorado’s graduation rate grew 5.7 percentage points from 1998 to 2008, compared to 6.1 points nationally. (The study used 2008 because that was the most recent year for which full comparable data was available. See this explanation of how rates were calculated.)

Unlike many states, Colorado does not have statewide common requirements for high school graduation, either prescribed courses or examinations. Local control of instruction is guaranteed by the state constitution.

The study also provided data about the nation’s 50th largest school districts, which include Jefferson County and the Denver Public Schools. Jeffco was 5th in the nation with a 77.8 percent rate, while DPS was 48th with a 43.5 percent rate.

Districts also were evaluated on what their graduation rates were expected to be, based on size and socioeconomic factors. Jeffco’s graduation rate was higher than its predicted rate, but Denver fell short. (See list of districts.)

Debate growing around value of college

Other studies 

A number of factors have focused research and commentator attention on college attendance and completion in recent months.

First, there has been growing attention to – or at least rhetoric about – the value of postsecondary education to a student’s life prospects. Colorado’s omnibus education improvement law, the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, explicitly sets a standard of “postsecondary and workforce readiness” for all high school graduates to meet.

Colorado politicians and education leaders routinely praise the value of college, and college completion is one of the three education policy priorities announced by the Hickenlooper administration earlier this spring.

But there has been concern that the postsecondary push places too much emphasis on college and not enough on other types of training after high school, questions echoed in the Diplomas County report.

Second, the economic downturn and the resulting tough job prospects for college grads have sparked fresh debate about the value – and the cost – of college.

The report notes that 70 percent of high school grads enroll in college within two years, but only about 40 percent of young Americans manage to earn a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree by age 27.

The report examines career-related pathways for students such as community college, “early college,” or high school training that leads to certification.

“While credible sub-baccalaureate options exist, high school students are often not aware of them—nor of the educational requirements for occupations they might want to pursue,” the report summary concludes.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede