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story.lead_photo.caption Members of the Jefferson City High School graduating class wave to family and friends as they take their seats at the start of the commencement exercise held at Adkins Football Stadium on Sunday, May 13, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Sidoti / News Tribune.

As another year's high school graduation season draws to a close, so do the books on school districts' graduation statistics.

The full picture about the class of 2018 in Mid-Missouri won't be available for months, but data from the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows where area districts stand with graduation rate trends over time.

Graduation rates can fluctuate significantly from one year to the next, even at the same school, according to DESE data.

Tuscumbia High School in the Miller County R-3 School District had a four-year cohort graduation rate of 100 percent at the end of the 2016-17 school year — the most recent available from DESE — but had a rate of 79.17 percent the year before, for example. The overall average rate there between the 2010-11 and 2016-17 was 92.03 percent.

Four-year cohort refers to the number of students who were together at a high school for grades 9-12. The four-year cohort graduation rate is calculated by dividing the number of four-year cohort graduates by the adjusted four-year cohort — which is the total number of students who attended starting at some point between grades 10-12.

St. Elizabeth High School in the St. Elizabeth R-4 School District had the highest average four-year cohort graduation rate among 19 Mid-Missouri school districts between the 2011-17 school years — 99.3 percent. The school had 100 percent rates in every year of that timespan but one — 2013, when the rate was 95 percent.

Jefferson City High School had the second lowest average graduation rate among those Mid-Missouri districts — 83.5 percent. The Fulton 58 school district had the lowest rate at 81.6 percent.

"We're making headway," Jefferson City Public Schools Superintendent Larry Linthacum said last summer of increasing the district's graduation rate. Last year's graduation rate of 84.4 percent was down from the year before, but also the second-highest in the district since 2011.

The district also changed its long-term goal last year from a focus on increasing the district's four-year graduation rate to ensuring all students are reading at or above their grade level, or having students with special needs meeting individualized education goals.

"We feel like if we do that, then graduation rates and those other things will take care of (themselves)," Linthacum said.

The Fulton 58 school district has taken a holistic approach to improving its graduation rate. Fulton Senior High School's average graduation rate was 81.61 percent as of the end of last year, but the school has seen significant improvements since 2011.

The rate then was 70.8 percent, and it had increased to a high of 90.86 by the end of the 2016 school year, then 88.68 percent in 2017.

Fulton Superintendent Jacque Cowherd said Thursday that realizing the progress his district's seen took some restructuring and "re-setting our mindset as a district that every child that walks into the district is labeled with a graduation class."

For example, Cowherd said, this year's kindergarten class is the class of 2031, and that's a label they have from the beginning of their academic careers. Cowherd is finishing his ninth year as superintendent.

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"Kids didn't have the expectation they were going to graduate," he explained, adding the district needed to instill "the belief in (students) that they could do it."

He said some of addressing that has been about providing students with mentors and role models at every school level of elementary, middle and high school — adults who students can reach out to, A+ program high school student tutors for younger students and bringing high school seniors dressed in their caps and gowns to parade in front of lower-grade students.

Increasing the district's graduation rate isn't just a high school-level issue, Cowherd said.

"If the system's working like it's supposed to, every grade level should build on the preceding grade level," he said, adding "everybody is a teacher here" working toward better student achievement.

Beyond the resources for students — which he said also have included teams to address mental health issues and remove other barriers between children and educational attainment — the district made policy changes, such as with discipline and homework.

Cowherd said there was a policy that students who missed school had to make up their homework but could at most only score a 50 percent — failing — on the assignments. "So why do it?" he said of how that was an incentive for students not to do their work.

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At a time of financial stress, he said, the district also looked at its alternative school. In addition to looking for ways to cut back, the district determined the alternative school wasn't really helping students' graduation rates — he said it was just a place for a few athletes to be kept eligible before their grades slipped again out of season — so the district brought that program into the high school.

"We were like many larger districts in that every building had their own mascots and their own game plan," Cowherd said, but added there's a focused plan now.

"The No. 1 thing is to believe in your teachers. They have a good handle on what kids need. Make sure they have the resources and structures behind them to support their kids," he said.

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