More and more high school seniors are graduating, and that’s due to building stronger relationships with students and making them accountable for their coursework, area educators say.
Iowa’s high school graduation rate increased to more than 89 percent in 2012, the highest in the nation, according to a report released by the state Department of Education this week.
Ottumwa Superintendent Davis Eidahl said while the Ottumwa High School graduation rate is lower than the state average, it’s far above what Ottumwa saw a few year ago. Last year, 81 percent of OHS seniors graduated.
“We have steadily increased that over the last five to 10 years,” Eidahl said. “We’ve gone from what used to be about a 70-75 percent graduation rate to 81 percent with three years of consecutive increase.”
In grades nine through 12 last year, 50 Ottumwa students dropped out. But that’s also down from 133 students who dropped out of school four years ago.
“We’re making dramatic gains,” Eidahl said. “Our graduation rate is actually accelerating faster than the state, even though we’re lower than the state average. We’ll catch it, it’ll just be within a few more years.”
The Cardinal school district in Eldon is celebrating its highest graduation rate in the district’s history: 98.51 percent.
Cardinal Superintendent Joel Pedersen said for him the key is building relationships with his students and their families, followed in a close second by improved instruction.
“The graduation rate isn’t important as much as ... going that extra mile to connect with kids,” he said.
Cardinal’s “Ketchup Room” and “Ketchup Saturday,” established one year ago, gives students the chance to come in before or after school or on Saturday mornings to work with teachers on completing assignments.
The idea of the program is “it’s no longer acceptable not to do your work,” he said.
“We have built-in time within every school day so those who didn’t get their work done can work with that teacher to get the work done,” he said. “And once a month on Saturday mornings teachers, not paid, come in with administrators to have kids complete the work they haven’t completed.”
The district will even pick up students directly from their house and bring them in to the Saturday morning catch-up sessions.
After one year of data, the Cardinal district went from 473 “F”s issued to just 47 this school year. Grades weren’t the only thing to improve — so did behavior.
Office referrals for disciplinary issues decreased by more than 200 and daily attendance in the secondary building increased by almost 2 percent.
“It’s all about changing that culture and climate,” he said. “It’s not just academic success that can happen, it’s improving student behavior and attendance rates. We’re going to hold you accountable to getting your work done.”
Five to 10 years ago, Ottumwa didn’t have programs in place to help students graduate.
“When we transitioned students from middle school to high school, we were treating 14-year-olds the same way we were treating 18-year-olds,” Eidahl said. “The Freshman Academy allows us to provide our freshmen students a better transition into high school.”
The directors of the Freshman Academy, associate high school principal Scott Maas and dean of students Steve Zimmerman, will graduate their first class of seniors that began in the academy four years ago.
“Looking at our data, we saw that if a student had earned 12 credits or more by the end of their freshman year, there was a high probability they would graduate,” Eidahl said. “If they earned less than 12, there was a likelihood they would not.”
When the program began, only 70-75 percent of OHS freshmen were taking 12 credits or more. In the first year of the academy, 91 percent of the freshman class was earning 12 or more credits.
This year, 88 percent of that same class is on track to graduate.
This school year, the Ottumwa district added another element into the mix: a graduation coach, Chuck Pierce, who identified 40 at-risk students, either in poor attendance, poor grades or “an attitude of not liking school,” Eidahl said.
“We assigned this coach as a mentor to work with students and families to keep the students inspired to remain and to graduate,” he said. “We don’t just wait to the end of the year with our fingers crossed hoping it increases.”
Improving graduation rates occurs long before that 17- or 18-year-old throws his cap in the air. Elementary schools also implement programs to keep students on track, including Reading Recovery.
While the graduation rate is easy to target at the high school, “research is very clear,” Eidahl said, in identifying a student’s third-grade reading ability as a factor in the possibility that he or she will graduate.
A child who doesn’t read at grade level is four times less likely to graduate, Eidahl said. Add poverty into the mix, and the child is 13 times less likely to graduate.
“It’s very, very important that we address it early and increase the probability of each and every child graduating by getting them to read by the time they’re entering the third grade,” he said.
Pedersen noted that every school district in the area is working hard to improve the success and graduation rates of its students.
“Every school has individual factors that create different challenges,” he said.
Karen Swanson, director of high school programs at Indian Hills Community College, said she thinks students are prepared when they graduate from high school.
“And I think there are more students who are actually tapping into college-level classes while they’re still in high school, which even further and better prepares them for college and career readiness,” Swanson said.
For at-risk students, Swanson said the key to keeping them on the graduation track is providing relevancy to their education.
The high school’s focus on core areas (math, science, English, social sciences) is complemented by electives and career or technical courses.
“They help enhance what they’ve learned in the core classes because it brings a more relevant flavor for those students so they understand why they’re learning that math, that applied science,” she said.
But there’s still that small percentage of students who are not graduating.
“I’m sure there are those students who are sitting in the classroom, saying, why am I here? Why do I have to learn about Shakespeare?” she said. “They’re not understanding the skills, the thinking and interpretation. Through a mixture of coursework offered at the high school and through concurrent offerings we have with the school district, students are getting better opportunities to advance their own education.”
There’s no silver bullet or quick fix, Eidahl said.
“We’re looking at the long-term, preK to 12 in this plan,” he said. “We’re already seeing a tremendous impact. There’s much more to come as our work from pre-K and early elementary ripples through our system.”
A look at the numbers
Here’s how other area districts’ high school graduation rates (in percentage) stack up against the statewide average and against each other:
Statewide high school graduation rate in 2012: 89.26
Davis County: 95.74
North Mahaska: 86.96
Van Buren: 85.48