Much has been written about Newark in the past year -- mostly about personalities and politics. We certainly have a lot of big names to attract attention: Cory Booker, Mark Zuckerberg, Ras Baraka, and Chris Christie. We started a new school year last month -- my fourth as Superintendent -- and I hope to bring the focus back on what matters most: our students and families.
For years, families in Newark have understandably demanded more from Newark Public Schools. Four years ago, our graduation rates hovered around 50 percent. In the South Ward, only one in four kids could read at grade level. In political polls, Newarkers rated schools terribly and the system's dysfunction was revealed by the thousands of families on waiting lists for a charter school sector that couldn't grow fast enough to meet parent demand. Students with disabilities and English Language Leaners lacked options and too many kids were trapped in failing schools. Newarkers wanted more, and we responded with urgency.
Today, we are beginning to see the results of our efforts: increased student achievement, higher graduation rates, improved teacher performance, and greater investments in our public school buildings. This summer, we also saw a dramatic increase in enrollment for the first time in a decade. We increased the number of students enrolling in early childhood programs by 1,000 and recently became the 2nd school district in the nation to be awarded a $7 million Head Start grant to add additional seats and enhance wrap around services. We released data this week that shows significant student achievement gains in our first cohort of Renew Schools (previously the lowest-performing schools in Newark) in both reading and math, even as state tests have gotten harder. We increased our overall graduation rate from 56 percent to 68 percent. The percentage of students passing the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) graduation test also increased by 11 percent while we have retained more of our students (500 fewer students have dropped out since 2011). We've kept our best educators -- 95 percent of effective and highly effective educators stayed in the district while nearly 40 percent of our ineffective teachers left. This summer, we invested an unprecedented $50 million to improve our school facilities. Over 1,500 more families enrolled in Newark Public Schools this year as compared to last year -- a true sign the district is on the move. And while I am the first to admit we have miles to go, these are real results that have a real impact on families in Newark.
There's still much more work to do. We've heard Newarkers' desire to be a more significant part of the process and we are committed to doing better. We have also heard extraordinary anguish when families do not get into the limited number of our top performing schools. Our plan, One Newark, did not create that frustration; rather, it was developed to address family demand and to move NPS closer to the day when all families have excellent school options.
The debate over the future of our public schools should not be about a small number of individuals who benefit from a polarized debate. Too much has been written about political and local leaders (myself included). This work is not about me, or politicians, or newsmakers. It is about our incredible students whose lives will change for the better or the worse depending on our collective willingness to make tough calls, confront brutal facts, and believe in the possibilities. Every single student in Newark is capable of greatness and it is our moral responsibility to do whatever it takes to deliver on that potential.