Solving Utah's dismal graduation rate: Two schools may have the answer

Incentive, aesthetic initiatives boost rates, but more needed

Published: Saturday, Dec. 8 2012 11:30 p.m. MST

Daisy Bravo, left, and Floricela Anguiano hold privilege cards and take a longer lunch at Ogden High School in Ogden, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. They received the cards because they have good attendance and good grades.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is the fourth-worst state in the nation for graduating Latino students, with just 57 percent of seniors collecting a diploma each year.

The sobering numbers, better than only Minnesota, Nevada and Washington, D.C., and first reported last week, were called disappointing and unacceptable by Gov. Gary Herbert as he cited poverty levels and language barriers as contributors to the low performance.

But at least two programs both inside and outside the state of Utah could provide a template for how to increase the number of high school graduates, particularly in the minority communities that lag far behind other states.

The schools have successfully increased graduation rates and student performance by offering incentives for good attendance, requiring extended class time for struggling students and using in-depth analysis of assessment data to track and target individual at-risk children.

In many cases, these programs are coupled with sweeping administrative and faculty changes that officials say help create a new atmosphere of learning, and it's done with out a large outlay of new money.

The search for solutions

In Nevada, the Clark County School District has seen results from naming schools "turnaround schools" after three years of persistent low achievement and implementing a district turnaround strategy of data analysis, professional learning communities and classroom walkthroughs by administrators and educational experts.

Jeff Geihs, the district's academic manager who oversees the turnaround program, said every teacher is expected to know where each of his or her students is academically. Groups of teachers then meet regularly to track individual and collective student progress.

The practices aren't rocket science, Geihs said, but represent tried-and-true best practices that are simply non-negotiable. Student assessment scores and graduation rates have increased in as little as one year as faculty and staff work to implement a framework of expectations.

"Every school in some way or another has shown achievement," he said. "So significant that they're an anomaly."

But turnaround schools also undergo cosmetic changes that Geihs said are crucial to establishing a new educational culture. Administrators and teachers are replaced, graffiti and vandalism are removed, class schedules are adjusted and a new school mission and vision is established.

"To be successful and effective, it must be considered a brand-new school," he said. "The only thing that should be the same is the kids."

Minority graduation rates in Utah have steadily increased each year, but the state continues to lag behind the nation and public schools are expected to become more diverse. Utah's 137,647 minority students account for 23 percent of the state's public education population, according to the Utah State Office of Education, and are growing at more than double the rate of the state as a whole.

Schools around the country have tried various methods of targeting their at-risk student populations and while progress has been slow, gains have been made. Richard Fry, a senior researcher with the Pew Hispanic Center, said that more than three-fourths of Hispanic adults ages 18 to 24 have a high school diploma or GED, a benchmark reached last year.

"Hispanic high school completion, nationally, is higher than it's ever been," he said. "It's been rising, particularly in the last five years."

Fry said the recession could be partly responsible for the increase, as fewer jobs makes dropping out of school to enter the workforce less viable. He said it is unknown if the dropout rates will return to pre-recession levels as the economy improves.

Successes in Ogden

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