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Education leaders 'cautiously optimistic' about graduation rate increases

Utah's high school graduation rate continues to climb, with minority students taking a larger share diplomas awarded, according to a report released Thursday by the Utah State Office of Education.
Utah's high school graduation rate continues to climb, with minority students taking a larger share diplomas awarded, according to a report released Thursday by the Utah State Office of Education.
Arvind Balaraman, Shutterstock

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's high school graduation rate continues to climb, with minority students taking a larger share of diplomas awarded, according to a report released Thursday by the Utah State Office of Education.

Utah's graduation rate now sits at 83 percent, a 2 percent increase from last year. Since 2010, graduation has risen by 8 percent in the state, and dropout rates have dropped by the same amount to 15 percent, according to the report.

Minorities saw more rapid increases than the overall average, with Asian students up 6 percent, Pacific Islanders increasing 5 percent, 4 percent for Hispanics and for all English language learners. Black students were the only minority group to see a drop in graduation, which was 2 percent higher last year, the report states.

Statewide, 20 high schools have graduation rates of 95 percent or better.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brad Smith said the increase is commendable, but there's work to be done to continue closing the gap.

"The good news is that Utah public schools are graduating more students and more minority students. Most of our achievement gaps are narrowing," Smith said. "The bad news is that achievement gaps remain and we need even more students to graduate to create better lives for themselves and a better future for the state."

State education leaders attribute success among minorities to more individualized guidance, which they are hopeful will be strengthened in light of a budget proposal announced by Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday. The governor hopes to bring $500 million in new funds to education, including $1.5 million for school counseling.

Judy Park, associate superintendent at the Utah State Office of Education, said the governor's proposal would directly impact factors leading to graduation, especially for minorities.

"I definitely believe that an increase in the right kind of support for education will affect and positively increase graduation rates," Park said. "I think we'll see a definite correlation there."

Several high schools in the Granite School District saw increases in graduation rates, though the district as a whole remained constant at 70 percent. But the district is seeing gradual success in getting more students across the stage at graduation.

Several high schools in the district have recently transitioned to include ninth graders instead of having them attend at a junior high school. Having high school freshmen attend with older students is how most high schools across the country are structured, but the change was made in some Utah schools to accommodate rapid growth during the 1980s, according to Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley.

Now that schools like Kearns High School are switching back to having grades 9 through 12 attend at the same building, graduation rates are expected to make a "big jump" in the next few years, Horsley said.

"When ninth graders are in the junior high, they act like junior high kids. When they're at the high school, they act like high school kids," Horsley said. "So they recognize that this really does count toward graduation and toward college. It's much harder to create that environment at the junior high level."

Other programs have helped students in the district gain momentum toward graduation and college enrollment. The district has participated in College Application Week, where all students apply for college without having to pay application fees. Students are recognized for the institutions they apply for, as well as the acceptance letters they receive, according to Horsley.

Horsley said that while the district's current graduation rates are "not adequate," improvement is noticeable.

"We want to make sure that we're doing everything in our power with the interventions and abilities we have to help the greatest number of kids graduate," he said. "There's room for growth and improvement, and we're going to keep working on it."

Dave Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, said he's "cautiously optimistic" about the upward trend in graduates. He added that state officials are working to improve the accuracy of student numbers so that dropouts are not double counted and that transfer students aren't counted as dropouts.

"Overall, the numbers are very promising," Crandall said. "We don't want to let up on what we're doing."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen