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KWHS

Students head back to Kelly Walsh High School after their lunch break in December 2017. The Natrona County School District has lowered its graduation rate goal for 2024 after consulting with educators.

After input from educators, the Natrona County school board lowered a target graduation rate for 2024 for all four of its high schools in the latest draft of its strategic goals.

“There was some conversation over the last meeting about our goals being a little too aspirational,” Debbie McCullar, the board member who’s leading the effort on setting the grad rate goal, told the rest of the board Monday night. “We want to make sure that staff feels that we can meet these goals.”

As a result, the board is now looking at a four-year graduation rate goal for Kelly Walsh, Natrona County High and Midwest of 86 percent by 2024, a percentage point above what the goal was for this year. Under the updated proposal, those schools’ extended rate — the share of students who graduate within seven years — would be 88 percent. Roosevelt, meanwhile, would still have a four-year grad rate goal of 65 percent. But its extended rate would be lowered from 70 percent to 67 percent.

As the board and district officials plan the goals they want to achieve by 2024, they’ve repeatedly debated how lofty to set the expectations. The conversations have been colored by the district’s mixed success on the set of goals that expired this year: It failed to meet its school rating and graduation rate expectations and likely fell short in its testing goal (though new measurements make it unclear). But it did succeed in staff, parent and student satisfaction, data shows.

At first, the board appeared to be aiming high. The first draft of the new graduation rate goal was an 88 percent rate for KW, NC and Midwest, with an extended rate of 90 percent. Roosevelt, the district’s alternative school, would’ve had a 65 percent four-year goal and a 70 percent extended goal under the first proposal.

In previous meetings, the district’s upper administration had told the board those goals were achievable. But some board members were skeptical — the district’s high schools had failed to meet the 85 percent goal they were supposed to hit this year, for instance, and the 2018 rate — 78 percent — was well below the state average of 81.7 percent.

High school educators apparently agreed that an 88 percent goal was a bit high. Superintendent Steve Hopkins said the recommendation that the board lower the goals was “really a result” of listening to high school teachers and administrators.

“If we take the two large comprehensive high schools as an example, they each have just recently in the last two years bumped 83 (percent) and 84 (percent),” he said, “and neither of them have sustained that for multiple periods. And it took a yeoman’s effort to get out of the 70s and break that 80 threshold.”

He added that the effort needed to bump the graduation rates up further will be even greater. Both NC and KW, though they didn’t meet the district’s 85 percent goal, have graduated record numbers of students in recent years.

“You’re working with increasingly at-risk students,” Hopkins said of the students that are still not graduating, even after the big high schools had worked to bump up their rates. He added that if the high schools met the 86 percent graduation rate before this five-year period is up in 2024, then the goal will be ratcheted up ahead of time.

The 86 percent goal, while just one point above the 85 percent goal that was set for 2019, which the district failed to meet, would still be a solid improvement from the district’s current rate. Indeed, five years ago, the district was in the mid-70s, even excluding Roosevelt.

To achieve that leap, district staff have said that each student will have an individual graduation plan, which will be monitored by staff and will include keeping parents in the loop.

Whether a student graduates high school or not has far-reaching implications. Not only does it impact that student’s employment opportunities, but those with high school diplomas typically live longer and are more likely to seek out health care.

The district will continue drafting proposed goals for the next few months. The other four expectations under consideration include a literacy goal; a 100 percent school performance rating from the state accountability system (it’s currently less than 33 percent); that the district maintains safe, orderly and supportive environments that are conducive to learning; and that 80 percent of “stakeholders” remain satisfied with the district.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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