Graduation rates rising in Minnesota high schools, rising faster at schools in northwestern region
Shane Zutz, the principal of Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls, told the story recently of a student who had been missing a lot of school and couldn’t catch up in trigonometry because his parents were in the middle of a messy divorce.
But instead of bemoaning the challenges students in such situations face, he reported that the student had turned his academic life around.
“He’s going to be on the front end of that class now,” Zutz said. The student is expected to return to school full time next fall, Zutz said.
The difference is something called an alternative learning center where the student is working to recover the class credits he lost.
Administrators at four of the larger high schools in the region — those in Crookston, East Grand Forks, Roseau and Thief River Falls— say programs like alternative learning are contributing to a timely graduation rate, particularly among students from lower income households.
Last year, the four schools reported notably higher four-year graduation rates than the state average, including among students enrolled in the free and reduced-price meal, which only those in lower income brackets qualify for.
That’s according to recent data from the Minnesota Department of Education. On average, the state as a whole reported the highest graduation rate in a decade, according to the data.
By the numbers
Evidence for this kind of success can be found in the graduation rates at each of the four schools.
The total number of seniors at the schools who graduated within four years was between 6 and 9 percentage points higher than the state average of 80 percent. Most of the dropout rates matched the state average of 5 percent.
The schools also did better than average with the four-year graduation rate of students who qualify for subsidized meals. Each had a rate at least 11 percentage points over the state average of 63 percent.
To qualify for subsidized meals last year, a family of four had to earn less than $29,965 for a free meal and between $29,966 and $42,643 for a reduced-price meal.
School administrators said higher graduation rates are the result of their schools providing classes that keep kids engaged and caring staff.
“It’s the counselors, it’s the teachers all telling them that it’s important,” said East Grand Forks Senior High Principal Brian Loer. “I think everybody realizes you now have to have a high school diploma to succeed. Forty years ago, it wasn’t as important.”
Alternative learning centers have been an effective retention tool in East Grand Forks, according to school district officials.
The centers offer a variety of classes, usually core ones such as math, to help students become eligible for graduation. Most students in such classes qualify for subsidized meals.
In East Grand Forks, the graduation rate of students that qualify is 14 percentage points higher than the state average.
Several regional schools have similar alternative learning centers, which can provide the sort of freedom non-traditional students crave, administrators said.
A 55-minute class that doesn’t allow students to move around, talk or ask questions randomly can be stifling, especially since many of these students have anxiety or high-stress problems, said Betty Meyer, an alternative-learning teacher in East Grand Forks.
“I truly believe there’s always going to be and has always been a handful of students that don’t fit into the regular classroom, and that’s why we’re needed,” she said. “We are not traditional, there’s no question about it. We can have 10 classes going on in one hour.”
Each day, about 40 to 45 students filter through the alternative learning-classroom, mostly for only one to two hours to make up classes they failed. They have a wide selection of classes to choose from, including electives. That’s not always the case at other schools.
Meyer said teachers recognize that there can be turmoil in the lives of the students, which affect their ability to learn.
“We kind of know how life is at home, how their social life is,” she said. “We aren’t afraid to come right out and ask them questions, whether they like it or not, and a lot of classroom teachers don’t have the freedom to do that.”
Administrators also noted that program expansion and credit recovery programs have been useful.
At Roseau High School, the number of students qualifying for subsidized meals who graduate within four years is 16 percentage points higher than the state average.
To help keep those numbers high, the district offers credit recovery classes in the evenings and during the summer. It also offers a “structured study hall” for at-risk students in Grades 7 through 12. The classes are small — at most, eight students per class — so teachers can help students really understand what they’re learning and the homework, which can lead to better test scores, said Principal Dave Reaves.
“We try to catch them early and not wait until they’re juniors or seniors,” he said.
In Crookston, the school district launched a new program this semester that’s intended to increase graduation rates by 10 percent, said Principal Jason Vold. The number of student qualifying for subsidized meals who graduate within four years is nearly the same as in Roseau.
At Crookston High School’s alternative learning center, students who fall behind can take extra classes to catch up reading and math, Vold said.
“Instead of getting discouraged and dropping out, there’s hope to go out and recover those credits,” he said.
East Grand Forks Senior High recently started a new program called Project Lead the Way that helps attract students to STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — and keeps them engaged. Currently, about 60 to 80 students are enrolled.
The district plans on expanding its elective courses even further to continue to capture student interest and keep them in school, said Superintendent David Pace. Last year, nearly 90 percent of high school seniors graduated within four years.
Pace said he was happy with the numbers but there’s still work to be done.
“I think we should be pushing into that 90 percentage range,” he said. “That’s an expectation in K-12 education. Your goal is that every student graduates.”