Utah education leaders set a goal a few years ago to raise the rate of high school graduation to 90 percent by the year 2020. It seemed audacious at the time, with graduation rates hovering at about 81 percent in 2013, but there are encouraging signs the state may very well reach that goal after an impressive investment of resources to get more kids through secondary school.
The state reported this week that the rate of graduation has increased every year in the past five, and is now up to 86 percent. Should the trend continue, the state will be graduating 89 percent of its students by 2020. Most significantly, the graduation rate has risen most among minority and low-income students. If schools and teachers have kept standards high, this is a harbinger of success in the state’s larger efforts to break up cycles of intergenerational poverty. According to a report earlier this year, the rate of graduation for kids most at risk of remaining in poverty rose from 50 percent in 2013 to 63 percent in 2016. These numbers paint a picture of continuing optimism and may potentially lend validation to various initiatives aimed in recent years at helping kids through the public school pipeline.
An example can be found at Cyprus High School, where the graduation rate jumped 11 percent between 2016 and 2017. While the school’s principal says there is no “secret sauce,” the school has done much to improve its recipe for keeping students engaged. For example, it has rearranged bus schedules to give kids flexibility if they need additional classroom or study time. When a student is identified as at risk to miss graduation, special lesson plans are put in place.
A similar focus on the problem resulted in the Provo School District creating a “twilight school” program, holding sessions between 3 and 5 p.m. for struggling students. The district also offers incentives for kids to attend summer classes to move ahead toward graduation, and it has created an “early warning system” to bring attention to students who may be lagging, and administrators hold monthly meetings to assess progress. These measures may account for the fact that the graduation rate in the Provo School District rose 6 percent last year.
Overall, the largest gains in the rates of completion statewide have come in the category of minority students. In the Salt Lake City School District, where more than half of students belong to minority groups, graduation rates are up 3 percent year-to-year. In the Ogden district, which is majority-Latino, rates are up 7 percent. Statewide, graduation rates among Latino students rose 3 percent last year.
The social and economic impacts of higher graduation levels can be substantial. Studies show students who fail to complete high school are more likely to fall out of step with society. They are more likely to engage in criminal behavior and become reliant on welfare assistance. Those who graduate, however, contribute significantly to the state’s economy. Acknowledging that correlation is not necessarily causation, the Alliance for Education says if the rate of graduation reaches 90 percent in three years, it will mean an increase in income of $22.3 million for those additional graduates over a 10-year period.
Utah's public schools appear to be increasingly capable of meeting ambitious goals and seeing improvement in important metrics like graduation rates when policy objectives are clearly stated, and when they receive buy-in from boardrooms to individual classrooms.