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Graduation rate takes slight dip during challenging year

In light of the challenges that Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools faced in the final months of the 2019-20 school year, a slight dip in the district's graduation rate is no cause for alarm for Superintendent Angela Hairston.

The number of students who graduated in four years slipped from 86.2% in 2018-19 to 85.8% in 2019-20, according to statistics released Wednesday from the N.C. State Board of Education. 

"I'm a mathematician," said Hairston, who taught math for years before moving into administration. "I round up."

Even with rounding up, the district lagged behind the state's graduation rate of 87.6%. Among the state's largest school districts, it performed better than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (85.5%) and Durham Public Schools (83.5%) but fell behind Guilford County Schools (89%) and Wake County Schools (90.8%).

All of the public school districts faced a massive disruption in mid-March when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered classrooms closed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools was among the first in the state to move to online learning, introducing this new mode of learning a few days after the order. 

"The events we were going through were relatively historic, and the students demonstrated resilience and did a very good job of adapting to the shift in how they were taught and how they learn," Hairston said. "We are confident we will see improvement."

Considering the barriers to online learning, which included technology, engagement and economic stress, Hairston said she was happy that the graduation rate did not plummet.

"I was very nervous about the climate that children were being asked to navigate in, but our students, in my opinion, overcame tremendous obstacles."

In 2008, the district set a goal of having 90% of its students graduate in four years by 2018. It got as high as 86.5% in 2017 but moving the needle into the high-80s has been difficult. 

When that goal was set, the district's four-year graduation rate was 70.8%, and there was steady progress each year until 2015 when the rate began to hover between 84 to 86%.

Hairston said she would like to see the district reach the 90% goal in the next year or two, but she said it will take engaging students as soon as they enter high school. 

"Cohort graduation rate actually begins in ninth grade," she said. "Schools and districts must have a plan at every level, where they see that a student is not engaging."

The CARES teams that the district has established with federal money are intended to connect with students who don't engage in remote learning. Established at the start of this school year, Hairston said these outreach teams may become permanent, even after the end of the pandemic.

"Often times, people think it's only about seniors disengaging but it begins on day one in ninth grade," she said.

The district continues to see a wide disparity in its graduation rate among schools. 

Schools with a high percentage of students who are English learners and are impoverished tend to have lower graduation rates, Hairston said. 

At Carver, for example, which had a graduation rate of 66.3%, more than half of its graduating class is economically disadvantaged, compared with Reagan, where 18% percent of its seniors were categorized as having an economic disadvantage. At 94.9%, Reagan had one of the highest graduation rates in the county.

"Our plans must be inclusive of students who have various needs," Hairston said. "And I think we have to target who is experiencing challenges through language and who is experiencing challenges due to poverty. I think if we do a good job in those areas, we really should significant improvement in our graduation rate.

Mount Tabor is among the high schools that saw in uptick in its graduation rate, going from 90.6% last year to 92.7% this year. 

Principal Ed Weiss credits his staff for being thorns in the side of kids who are wavering. The school has graduated more than 90 percent of its seniors in four years for the past nine years.

"We've been fortunate to have stability in our counseling center and administrative team, and our teachers believe in our kids. They've always been willing to create a plan for students to execute to get to the finish line," Weiss said. "There are a lot of layers to get a student motivated, especially a senior who is at risk at the end."

The Last Call: Venue owners and fans patiently await a return to live music

At 5 p.m. on March 17, seven folks at Monstercade, a dive bar on Acadia Avenue, lifted their drinks, stared into a camera and proclaimed "cheers."

Photos: Socially distanced show at Monstercade

The salute coincided with the closure of restaurants and bars, one of Gov. Roy Cooper's first orders to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

"We'll see you soon," the gathering at Monstercade wrote on a photo that was posted on social media.

Carlos Bocanegra, the owner of the bar, reflected on that moment a few days ago. A regular traveler to New York City, he had been keeping tabs on that city's battle with this new virus that was creeping into the city, infecting and killing an alarming number of residents.

The dark cloud would soon drift south, he figured.

"I honestly thought maybe we'd be in this for two to three months. I saw the stats from China and Italy and they seemed to recover within two months, and maybe because we are bigger, it could be three months," Bocanegra said. "But here we are."

The stools at the tiny bar have remained empty since that last drink nearly six months ago, a stark reminder of a pandemic that has lingered far beyond what many of us imagined back in mid-March when a flurry of events — the sudden postponement of the NBA, the end of the ACC Tournament, President Trump's travel ban from Europe  — snapped us into attention. Within days, our world was upended, changing the way we work, shop, eat, go to school, travel and socialize. 

Among the many victims has been live music, especially the kind played in bars, clubs and theaters, where the give-and-take between musicians and audience results in a transcendent, communal joy.

Debbie Carson is one of the owners of The Reeves, which was marking its third year of bringing roots music to downtown Elkin. The loss of live music at this gem of a music house has hit Carson financially and emotionally.

"It's such a big piece of my heart," she said. "There were a lot of ways we thought we could go down, but a pandemic was not on my list. It blindsided us."

Revitalizing The Reeves, a former movie theater, was a slow-moving project filled with fits and starts. After three years gaining its footing as a live-music venue, The Reeves was on the verge of having its most profitable month in April. 

"We thought it was going to be our best month in terms of ticket sales, and that maybe we'd even be operating in the black. We were all encouraged. Our booking team had learned a lot in the last two years, what draws in local people, what's a good regional show. You have to get a feel for that and build your audience," Carson said. "It came to a screeching halt."

The Reeves shut down its kitchen and bar because it didn't make financial sense to seat only a few people at a time in its small dining area. Carson is thinking ahead to maybe having some smaller open-mic nights, but for now, nothing is definite. 

With the future uncertain as far as reopening, Carson is focusing on enhancing parts of The Reeves. It's adding a new lounging area for musicians with a handicapped accessible shower and added more office space. 

"We're really committed to reopening, but we don't know what that will look like," Carson said.

Over at Monstercade, which has smaller overhead costs and a smaller staff than The Reeves, Bocanegra was able to pivot the bar's mission from a live-music and drinking space to a beer delivery service. Almost immediately after Cooper's shut down, Monstercade began selling and, in some cases, delivering beer. It doesn't bring in much money, but it pays a few bills.

A few months ago, it also began some live programming, moving events to a parking lot that can hold about 50 cars. Events include an open-mic comedy night, movie nights and scaled-down music shows Friday nights. The events are free, but people have been generous with tips to the acts and the club's staff.

He isn't sure what will happen when the weather turns cold. If Cooper moves the state into Phase 3, which allows for bars and nightclubs to open, Bocanegra said he will think long and hard before opening Monstercade because of safety concerns. 

Like Carson at The Reeves, Bocanegra is using the break from indoor shows to make some improvements. While he tinkers inside, he said he can feel the energy of past crowds.

A hub for artists and unconventional thinkers, Monstercade will survive by being creative, Bocanegra said.

"You know how they say that when there's a nuclear apocalypse that only cockroaches will survive?" he asked. "By God, Monstercade is going to be that roach that makes it through."

Besides venue owners, fans of live music are also feeling a void.

Jennifer Bauer Sapp and her husband, Wayne, are huge concert-goers and immediately became fixtures at The Ramkat when the club opened in 2018.

They saw Old Crow Medicine Show at The Ramkat on Feb. 28, their last show at the venue. 

Looking ahead to spring, they had a host of shows to attend, including Drive-by Truckers and Chatham County Line, at The Ramkat.

"The sad thing is we had tickets to MerleFest, and we would have seen John Prine," Jennifer said of the folk musician who died in April of COVID-19. "Of all the kicks in the gut, that was the biggest one."

As much as she misses live music, going to a packed venue is not worth the risk of getting sick or spreading the disease to a loved one, she said. She and her husband have live streamed some concerts and regularly buy music from some their favorite acts. 

And they're also waiting, patiently, for a day when they can return to a music hall. 

"I wish that COVID was done. I wish it would have been what we thought, 'Let's stay home and let this die out.' But people weren't careful," she said. "And it's a sad reality for all of us."

Photos: Socially distanced show at Monstercade

Jacob Blake speaks out for first time since police shooting

MILWAUKEE — Jacob Blake has spoken publicly for the first time since a Kenosha, Wis., police officer shot him seven times in the back, saying he's in constant pain from the shooting, which doctors fear will leave him paralyzed from the waist down.

In a video posted Saturday night on Twitter by his family's lawyer, Ben Crump, Blake said from his hospital bed that, "Twenty-four hours, every 24 hours it's pain, nothing but pain. It hurts to breathe, it hurts to sleep, it hurts to move from side-to-side, it hurts to eat."

Blake, a 29-year-old father of six, also said he has staples in his back and stomach.

"Your life, and not only just your life, your legs, something you need to move around and forward in life, can be taken from you like this," said Blake, who lived in Winston-Salem for much of his time growing up.

He added: "Stick together, make some money, make everything easier for our people out there, man, because there's so much time that's been wasted."

Blake, who is Black, was shot in the back by a white police officer on Aug. 23 after walking away from the officer and two others who were trying to arrest him. The officer, Rusten Sheskey, opened fire after Blake opened his own SUV's driver-side door and leaned into the vehicle. The shooting was captured on video and posted online, sparking several nights of protests and unrest in Kenosha, a city of about 100,000 between Milwaukee and Chicago.

Sheskey and the other officers who were at the scene were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. None of them have been charged.

Blake, who had an outstanding arrest warrant when he was shot, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges accusing him of sexually assaulting a woman in May and waived his right to a preliminary hearing. Blake appeared remotely via video conference from his Milwaukee hospital bed, wearing a dress shirt and tie. He spoke only to respond to the judge's questions.

The state Justice Department has said a knife was recovered from Blake's vehicle, but it has not said whether he was holding it when officers tried to arrest him.

The man who made the widely seen cellphone video of the shooting, 22-year-old Raysean White, said he saw Blake scuffling with three officers and heard them yell, "Drop the knife! Drop the knife!" before gunfire erupted. He said he didn't see a knife in Blake's hands.

The Kenosha police union said Blake had the knife and refused orders to drop it. Blake fought with police, including putting one officer in a headlock, the union said. Police twice used a Taser, which did not stop Blake.

Jacob Blake's father said Friday that his "happy-go-lucky" son is optimistic for his future, although he remains paralyzed from the waist down after being shot.

Jacob Blake Sr., speaking by video chat from a Milwaukee hotel, told The Associated Press that the past two weeks have been "surreal" and "like a dream" and he's mentally worn out. He said he's been receiving death threats, which he said he couldn't talk about in detail.

"It's been hard on everybody," said Blake Sr., who drove from North Carolina to be with his hospitalized son.

The elder Blake has long standing connections to Winston-Salem and attended Winston-Salem State University, said Richard Daniels, a longtime friend.