Four year graduation rates fell statewide according to a report released this week by the state’s board of education. About 91 percent of high school students in Iowa graduated with a high school diploma within four years in 2017, a drop from the previous year, which saw 90.3 percent of students in Iowa high schools graduate within four years.
The state has set a goal of achieving a 95 percent graduation rate for students in Iowa, the drop in graduation rates this year comes after several years of steady gains. Since 2011 the statewide graduation rate has climbed 2.7 percentage points overall, with steady gains made in nearly every demographic subgroup. Graduation rates for African American students have increased by 9.1 percentage points since 2011, when only 88.3 of students graduated.
While Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise said there’s always room for improvement, he’s confident the state is on the right track.
“High school graduation is an essential step for every student because it opens the door to postsecondary education and training opportunities that lead to rewarding jobs,” Wise said. “While I’m disappointed in this one-year decrease, our long-term trend is still on the rise and I’m confident we have the right roadmap in place for education.”
In Newton, graduation rates saw a slight dip this year, down from last year’s mark of 89.2 percent. In 2017, 172 students graduated from Newton High School, out of a class of 195. Newton High School Principal Bill Peters said while he’s concerned about the decrease, he’s more focused on providing every student with an education that meets their needs.
“It’s cause for concern, we were above average for the past couple of years,” Peters said. “We take in a lot of kids when their track records of education aren’t that great, but we’d rather take a shot at helping that kid and deal with the number later.”
Peters said teachers across the district work to identify students who are at risk of dropping out, and the high school has number of programs it employs to work with those students to keep them in school. Administrators at the school call on every absence, and Peters said the district works hard to develop a connection between at risk students and their parents.
“Usually you see it coming, the kid is starting to show disinterest in school, grades are starting to slip,” Peters said. “It could be that their life away from school is so complicated.”
The state’s graduation rate only tracks students who graduate within four years. Alternative schools, like Newton’s West Academy aren’t counted in those rankings. Peters said often the district is able to get students back and help them graduate even after their four years are up, but those students are still counted as having dropped out by the state. The high school also refers students to the HiSet program at Newton’s DMACC campus, where students can earn a general equivalency diploma, or GED. Making sure each student gets a high school education is the primary goal, Peters said.
“If we can get them back over the summer, yeah it’s going to be a dropout for us, but at least the kid gets a high school equivalent diploma,” Peters said. “It’s a crazy game, because you want to help them all, even if the number doesn’t look as good as you’d like it to.”
Administrators agree that making a connection between students and the school is a critical link in the fight to keep at-risk kids in class and on track to graduate. Students across Jasper County also have the option to attend West Academy in Newton, where principal Brett Miller said his staff is focused on helping kids find a connection that may have been lacking at a larger high school.
“Traditional schools do a great job of connecting with most of your students, but not every student,” Miller said. “Our role is that we do a great job of connecting the students who aren’t connecting at the high school. Our goal isn’t to serve 500 kids, our goal is to serve 70 kids.”
Shane Wheeler, the high school principal at Lynnville-Sully, echoed Miller’s sentiments. Lynnville-Sully High School had the second highest graduation rate in Jasper County last year, 33 of their 34 seniors graduated within four years, giving the school a graduation rate of 97.06 percent. Wheeler said the key to graduation is keeping students engaged, and creating an environment that students want to be part of.
“A kid really needs to have somebody in the district, I don’t care who that is, some adult in the district that they can connect with,” Wheeler said. “It might sports staff, a teacher, an aide, anybody, but they need to know that somebody cares about them and their success.”
Administrators at Lynnville-Sully use a data driven approach to student success, they attempt to identify areas where a student might be struggling and intervene before it becomes a crisis. Wheeler said the first step administrators take with at risk students is to bring the student in with their parents for an conversation about their options. The high school is willing to work with each student individually, but the student needs to buy into the program. Wheeler’s message to students is direct — we want you here and we’re willing to work with you.
“We just want to have an honest conversation with them about what they want to do,” Wheeler said. “Me wanting it for you is not going to make you do it.”
Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or firstname.lastname@example.org