Every high school diploma does not count when it comes to the graduation rate in Tennessee. Beginning last year with the Class of 2011, students are required to finish high school in 4 years by age 18 in order to count in the state graduation rate Calculating and Reporting High School Graduation Rates.
That means Bathashee Bar, who just graduated from high school, has a diploma that will not show up in Nashville’s graduation rate—despite the hardships she endured to earn it. Bathashee (Cee-Cee to her friends) spent her childhood in refugee camps of Southeast Asia after her family escaped persecution and possible death in their native Burma.
“My daddy thought if the family come here, we could go to school and one day we can help the people that are poor, and we can help our family get better,” Cee-Cee says in heavily accented English.
By the time Cee-Cee’s family settled in Nashville, she was almost 19 and could speak very little English—both reasons that disqualified her from enrolling in traditional high schools. A refugee counselor helped her enroll in The Academy at Old Cockrill, a high school for students who are over-age but need more credits to earn a diploma.
“It’s hard, yeah,” says Cee-Cee. “ I learn English, but it’s hard for me.”
Cee-Cee’s story is common in Nashville public schools. The district is one of the most diverse in Tennessee, with more than 120 languages spoken by students.
“We have students coming from all over the world relocating here and many of those students don’t speak English,” says Jay Steele, assistant superintendent of high schools for Nashville Public Schools. “Some of them have never been in a school. So it’s a real challenge to educate those students and graduate them in 4 years.”
According to the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card 2011, English-language learners or E.L.L. students have one of the lowest graduation rates in Nashville public schools at 64%, surpassing only homeless students (61%) and special education students (55%).
Even so, Nashville schools had been making progress toward improving the graduation rate for ALL students through a variety of approaches like freshman academies and the Newcomer Academy for E.L.L. students. Then last year, the Tennessee Department of Education changed how graduation rates are calculated— to meet federal guidelines. That lowered the time allowed to graduate from 5 years, and up to age 22, to 4 years, up to age 18. In the first year under the new rules– the class of 2011—Nashville’s graduation rate dropped from more than 82% to 76%.
“That’s wrong. They aren’t in this country for 2 years and they expect them to get through everything at the same rate as someone who was born here,” says Elaine Fahrner, the principal at Cee- Cee’s high school . She and many educators are frustrated by a process that discounts diplomas earned by E.L.L. students and others with special needs—just because they take a bit more time.
“To me, a graduate is a graduate. They’re less likely to need government assistance; they’re less likely to have relationships with the police; they are consumers and not takers– so I don’t understand why when somebody graduates it doesn’t count as a graduate.”
Ultimately, the debate about graduation rates doesn’t matter much to Cee-Cee and her parents, who feel a diploma – even if not counted by policymakers—is a dream come true. With the help of a translator, Cee-Cee’s father tells us how he feels.
“Until now our heart broken, our tears come out. We never thought that our child go to the graduation and get good grades, and so we are really excited for God’s plan for our future in the United States.”