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As Jefferson City High School prepares to graduate another class, Jefferson City Public Schools — beyond raising students' literacy levels — is focusing on increasing student activity involvement and students' attendance to raise the four-year graduation rate.

JCHS' four-year graduation rate last year — the most recent available from Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — was about 84.5 percent, less than one half of 1 percent more than the year before.

JCHS' four-year graduation rate through the 2018 school year has stayed within a certain range since at least 2011, the oldest graduation rate data DESE has available.

The rate at JCHS over the past eight years has never dipped below 81 percent but has never reached 86 percent or more, according to the data.

"We are making a strong push to get as many students as possible involved with something school-related. Whether it is a sports team, a music group or a club, students have better attendance, better behavior and better grades when they belong to a school group," JCPS Director of Secondary Education Gary Verslues said.

In addition to those priorities, Verslues added: "Attendance is another area we need to improve on. The more a student misses school, the further he or she falls behind academically. It is our belief the later start times at the secondary level will address some of our attendance issues."

The JCPS Board of Education voted in March for unified JCPS start and end times beginning with the 2019-20 school year. Elementary schools will all start at the same time, earlier than they do now; and high schools and middle schools will start later.

All of the district's elementary schools will start at 7:45 a.m. and dismiss at 2:45 p.m.; the district's two high schools will start at 8:40 a.m. and dismiss at 3:40 p.m.; and the two middle schools will start at 8:50 a.m. and dismiss at 3:50 p.m.

The district's long-term goal is to have all of its students reading at or above their grade level, and Superintendent Larry Linthacum has said previously that will help the graduation rate.

The News Tribune looked at the graduation rates of eight high schools around the state — Blue Springs, Hazelwood Central, Hazelwood West, Joplin, Lee's Summit West, Lindbergh Senior, Marquette Senior and Troy Buchanan — that have a similar enrollment size as JCHS or have a combination of similar enrollment and comparable free or reduced-price lunch student eligibility rates.

All of those high schools and JCHS saw some increase in their overall four-year graduation rates between 2011-18.

Hazelwood West High School had the largest change — a more than 21 percent increase in its overall four-year graduation rate, including a more than 14 percent increase just between 2011-12.

"You have to have a total commitment to graduating students," from attendance staff to every classroom teacher, administrators and central office personnel, said Dennis Newell, who has been principal of Hazelwood West High School since 2011.

"As you can well imagine, there's no silver bullet. What you have to do — it's a whole school project," Newell said of the school's priorities in terms of raising that graduation rate and what's worked best.

When students withdraw from the school, he said, they want to know where and to what kind of educational environment a student is going so they can be sure they are going on to more education and not just dropping out of school.

He also said it's important to track students' grades and credits and that there's a wide array of course offerings, including ones wherein students can earn college credit. Students who don't graduate at Hazelwood West often have truancy issues, he added.

A lot of other schools may say similar things, but also haven't had the same level of success.

When asked if he had noticed anything Hazelwood West is doing that other schools may not be, Newell said: "Credit recovery, and as I said, making sure that we know where each student is in terms of their academic advancement. We want to make sure that they're on track to graduate."

Hazelwood West also has a counselor dedicated to students' post-high school career and college plans, he said.

He said the school six years ago initiated a college recognition day for seniors to be recognized by the school, family and friends, in celebration of students' success at being accepted to a college, employer or the military.

"I don't think that that in and of itself is why we've increased our graduation rate, but we make sure that all of our students in the building know how important it is to graduate," Newell said.

If he had to give one reason why Hazelwood West's graduation rate has increased, Newell said that upon his arrival, the school worked with a committee and the district to fix what he thought were discrepancies in how the school's graduation rate was being calculated.

He said they "made sure that we were calculating correctly and that we're accounting for all of our students, and where they were placed. And then, we made a concerted effort to track our students, and I don't mean what courses they're in, but where they are in terms of meeting the requirements for graduation," he said.

"It's not something that you can wait until a student's a junior or senior, and then find out that they're credit deficient. You have to start when they're a freshman," he added.

"It begins and ends with capturing students, keeping them in school, making sure that you present a curriculum that's vital and that they see the connection between work and school, or school and college," he said.

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