Superintendents in central San Joaquin Valley school districts had good news to report Tuesday with graduation rates up and dropout rates down, according to data released by the state.
The Valley’s higher graduation rates mirrored an uptick in the statewide rate, which increased 1.3 percentage points to 82.3 percent in 2014-15 compared to 81.0 percent in the 2013-14 school year.
The statewide dropout rate declined from 11.5 percent to 10.7 percent.
The graduation and dropout rates were calculated based on four-year “cohort” information. In other words, the same group of students who entered ninth grade for the first time were followed for four years.
Fresno Unified, the largest district in the Valley, showed an increase in its graduation rate from 79.3 percent in the 2013-14 school year to 83.8 percent, Superintendent Michael Hanson said at a news conference at Edison High School in southwest Fresno.
“Every one of our comprehensive high schools improved their standing, every single one,” he said.
Fresno Unified also saw graduation rate improvements in subgroups of students, including Hispanic, Asian and African American. For example, Hispanic students’ graduation rates increased to 82.3 percent, a 10.8 percent increase over four years, Hanson said. Asian students’ rates increased to 90.9 percent, a 9.9 percent increase; and African American students’ rates rose 82.1 percent, a 15.2 percent increase.
“We take great pride in seeing this kind of growth progression over time,” Hanson said.
Cal Johnson, a Fresno Unified board member who represents the Edison area, said graduation rates for Hispanic, Asian and African American students show the district is closing the education gap, which is critical. “When we don’t have expectations for our students, we will always have those gaps,” he said.
Statewide, graduation rates for Hispanic students increased 1.9 percentage points to 78.5 percent; American Indian or Alaska native students increased 2.5 percentage points to 73.1 percent. For African American students, the graduation rate increased 2.6 points to 70.8 percent.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a written statement that the increased graduation rates show that students “are benefiting from the additional revenues flowing into our schools. We are bringing back relevant and engaging classes in science, civics, arts, and Career Technical Education that were slashed during the Great Recession.”
Hanson cited a push by Fresno Unified for rigorous course offerings coupled by increased support to help students succeed, such as a higher ratio of school counselors to students.
Edison seniors Rumi and Zain Sheriffs, 17, who are twins and have been accepted at Columbia University in New York for this fall, said their high school curriculum was challenging, but they had support from teachers and counselors that helped them succeed. And Rumi said students need “a curriculum that is not only good and strong but allows students to pick and choose what they want to learn.” He and his brother plan to pursue history majors at Columbia.
Hanson said the district’s decision to offer summer school to all students who had received a D or F grade in college and university readiness classes has had a positive effect on graduation rates. The district went from 6,000 students in summer school to 18,000 students, he said. And he praised the board’s recent decision to pay teachers a per diem rate for teaching summer classes. “We want the best teachers there,” he said.
Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said the new local control funding formula for California schools has allowed Clovis to create transition teams of teachers and staff. Those staffers make sure students who are struggling academically don’t slip through the cracks and fail to graduate.
The teams keep a watch on students’ grades, involvement in school activities and attendance, for example, Avants said. “They are engaging with the parents and the student,” she said. “The scaffold of support is for the families as well as the students.”
Clovis Unified, which traditionally has among the highest graduation rates in the Valley, saw improvement in the latest data. The graduation rate increased 2.5 points, from 92.1 percent to 94.6 percent. The dropout rate fell from 3.9 percent to 2.9 percent.
Madera Unified Superintendent Edward C. González and Bobby Peters, director of educational services at Hanford Joint Union High School District, said new Common Core academic standards have given their students a boost.
“Common Core has been good for us,” Peters said. “We didn’t like the check box and memorization” emphasized prior to Common Core, he said. Common Core, which stresses critical thinking, “has reinvigorated our teachers and re-engaged our students.”
Madera Unified’s graduation rate increased 2.7 points from 87 percent to 89.7 percent and its dropout rate decreased from 10.3 percent to 7.9 percent. In Hanford, the graduation rate increased by 2.8 points, from 90.6 percent to 93.4 percent. The dropout rate fell from 5.6 percent to 4.1 percent.
Central Unified Superintendent Mark Sutton said students in his district who are falling behind academically are given tutoring opportunities, interventional classes and other alternatives. “But it comes down to really our teachers reaching out individually in the classroom and working with the kids so that they get it the first time,” he said.
At Central Unified, the graduation rate increased 3.1 points, from 81.3 percent to 84.4 percent. The dropout rate fell from 10.5 percent to 7.6 percent.
Todd Oto, superintendent of Visalia Unified, said his district’s students need a sense of belonging when they are in school. Adults work with students, and student-to-student interaction is designed to create an inviting school culture, he said.
Graduation rates in Visalia Unified increased 2.6 points, from 92.1 percent to 94.7 percent. The dropout rate decreased from 5.6 percent to 3.2 percent.
Sanger Unified Superintendent Matt J. Navo said creating more options and opportunities for students to be connected to their schools has paid off. The graduation rate there increased 3.3 points, from 92.2 percent to 95.5 percent. The dropout rate fell from 5.0 percent to 3.1 percent.
The increased graduation rates are reason for celebration for Navo and the other Valley superintendents, but they say much work remains.
“For us, the ultimate goal is every child walks across the graduation stage and receives a high school diploma from us,” Navo said.