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New education law will judge schools on graduation rates

New education law will judge schools on graduation rates
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The designation is expected to come for about 200 schools around the state when the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act goes into effect next summer. It is the successor to No Child Left Behind.

Director of Teaching and Learning Carrie Thomas told the Willmar School Board this week that the Minnesota Department of Education will designate high schools with a four-year graduation rate less than 67 percent.

The designation will be applied to any school with less than 67 percent for all students or for any student group.

Thomas said it’s pretty clear Willmar will be on that list. The grad rates for all students, white students and Hispanic students at Willmar Senior High School are higher than 67 percent. However, rates are lower in several other categories and at the Area Learning Center and Prairie Lakes Education Center.

The state used a new method of calculating grad rates starting with the 2016-17 school year, she said. The state recalculated 2011-12 rates using the new method to allow for some comparisons. Rates from other years no longer offer a valid comparison.

“It’s not great or fun to be identified,” Thomas said. “But on the other hand, it might give us an opportunity to tell our story and work with the state to understand the challenges districts face and why it’s difficult for all kids to graduate in four years.”

The new law also calculates graduation rates for students who have been in high school five, six and seven years. The old law calculated five- and six-year rates.

Students’ years in high school are counted beginning with ninth grade, and they will always be counted as part of that class. For example, students who will graduate in 2018 after five years will be counted as members of the Class of 2017.

As students stay in school and earn diplomas, the graduation rate for each class continues to increase. In some cases, Willmar’s rates in five, six and seven years exceed state averages, according to the information provided by Thomas.

The district’s demographics have changed in recent years, with more students arriving as teenagers with little or no education, Thomas said.

Four-year rates may seem low, “but it doesn’t mean kids aren’t sticking around,” she said. “They are coming to us without education, but they are sticking with us.”

Board member Tammy Barnes praised the long-term grad rates. “They’re graduating higher than the state, and that’s awesome,” she said. “That’s a wonderful piece to highlight.”

Those who graduate later meet the same requirements as students graduating after four years, Thomas said, adding, “We don’t ‘water down’ our diploma; we have high expectations.”

Thomas said she hopes to communicate with state officials that not all English learners are the same. Those without formal education or English skills need to work longer and harder to graduate, she said.

“I think there are some great things happening in our district, and if you look at our data you see it,” she said.

Superintendent Jeff Holm said it’s not clear what type of assistance the state will provide as it appears that little funding will be available from the state.

“They’re going to offer technical assistance and consultants, but I’m not aware of any additional dollars coming our way,” he said.

Holm told the board that the designation for high schools is actually a district issue. “Our results are a product of what we’re doing with kids the entire time they’re with us,” he said.

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