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NC Graduation

Graduates stand in line as they wait to cross the stage during the Natrona County High School Commencement in June in Casper. Some Natrona County school board members have questioned whether a graduation rate goal of 88 percent is realistic.

Natrona County School District officials recently unveiled the first draft of goals for the next five years, including higher graduation rates and better school performance. But two board members expressed doubt that the benchmarks were achievable.

Trustee Kevin Christopherson asked associate superintendent Walt Wilcox if an 88 percent graduation rate for the district’s two big high schools was realistic, as the district had failed to reach 85 percent under its previous set of goals. Wilcox and other administrators were presenting the work, guided by board meetings, Monday evening.

Christopherson’s fellow board member, Clark Jensen, wondered if 100 percent of schools could meet state expectations by 2024. Just a third of schools here were meeting that target this year, despite the district setting a 100 percent-by-2019 expectation five years ago.

There’s reason for some critical self-examination: Earlier this year, the district assessed the goals it set five years ago, and in two out of three cases, it fell short. A fourth goal, literacy rates judged by test scores, is harder to assess because of a new testing system in Wyoming. Still, in the first batch of results released under that new system in the fall, Natrona County students generally lagged behind their peers across the state.

District officials stress that there are reasons to help explain why the previous goals weren’t met. Alternative high school Roosevelt — and its recently inflated enrollment — dragged down the higher graduation rate average set by Kelly Walsh and Natrona County. The new testing system affected schools’ performance ratings from the state.

In any case, the new proposals will likely not be easy targets. They also reflect frustration expressed by the board. For instance, officials and trustees have noted that Roosevelt’s graduation rate hurts the overall figures. Now, the district is considering a four-part graduation rate goal, rather than the districtwide 85 percent benchmark set in 2014. Under the new goal, Roosevelt would be expected to hit a 65 percent rate by 2024, while the district’s other three schools would be expected to hit an 88 percent average. Roosevelt’s “extended” graduation rate — students who take up to seven years to graduate — would be set at 70 percent, while the other schools’ would be 90 percent.

The other proposed goals include: students here between third and 10th grade meeting or exceeding English testing targets; all schools meeting state performance expectations; all “district environments” being “safe, orderly, supportive, and conducive” to student learning; and the district receiving a satisfaction rating of 80 percent from its community.

Wilcox said the 88 percent graduation rate is “aspirational” and that the strategies the district will use to achieve it — like individualized graduation plans for each high schooler — make it more realistic. He similarly said the 100 percent performance rating goal for all schools was attainable.

Jensen said he hated to miss goals and that he wanted a “realistic goal, rather than a stretch goal.”

“It sucks not to reach goals,” he told the assembled administrators.

Chairwoman Rita Walsh tried to talk up the goal and the strategies that will make it possible, but Jensen pointed out that the district’s record on meeting graduation rate benchmarks was checkered.

“I truly believe these strategies are strong, so if you have an individual graduation plan — “ Walsh started.

“But look at our track record,” Jensen interjected. “How much did we gain the last four years?”

“We haven’t had this,” Walsh replied, referring to the graduation plans.

“I understand you’ve got some new strategies, and that’s great, but what’s our track record?” Jensen asked again. The district’s overall graduation rate in 2018 was 78 percent. Natrona County had a likely record-high rate of 84.4 percent, while Kelly Walsh graduated 80.6 percent of seniors last year.

“It isn’t like we were sitting on our thumbs the last four years,” he continued. “We were trying to improve these goals the last four years, how much progress did we make the last four years?”

“We started the beginning of this five-year cycle at 75 percent,” Superintendent Steve Hopkins said.

“We gained five percentage points?” Jensen replied.

“We gained nine,” Hopkins said. “Seventy-five (percent) to 84 (percent).”

But only Natrona County High School has hit 84 percent, and that was just this year. The district’s cumulative graduation rate for its three traditional schools in 2018 was 82 percent, a growth of five and a half points since 2014 but below the 85 percent goal. The district’s overall graduation rate in 2018 was 78 percent, fewer than three points higher than the 75.4 percent rate from five years previously.

Still, if the board proceeds with an 88 percent goal for its three traditional schools, it’s not an unattainable goal, especially in light of the 5.5 percentage point gain from 2014.

Indeed, several other schools of relatively comparable size to NC and KW have hit 88 percent or better. Charlotte Gilbar, the district’s executive director for curriculum and instruction, did a cursory look and found six schools in Wyoming that are 4A — the highest athletic classification — that met or exceeded that benchmark.

All are smaller than either NC or KW. They include Gillette’s Thunder Basin, Laramie High, Cheyenne’s Central, and Sheridan High.

The point, Gilbar indicated, was that hitting 88 percent wasn’t an unattainable goal.

“It’s possible,” she said.

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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