In 2014, the Natrona County School District hoped to have a four-year graduation rate of 85 percent by 2019. It set a goal to have 100 percent of its schools meet or exceed state expectations. It hoped to improve its reading test scores and have broad satisfaction among staff, parents and students.
Such were the goals for the district’s five-strategic plan that ends this year. A month into 2019, the district’s graduation rate is 78 percent. Only a third of the district’s schools were rated as meeting or exceeding expectations. In the first year of a new testing system, Natrona County students generally lagged behind their peers in English and math.
The district did meet its satisfaction goal: More than 90 percent of students, staff and parents were happy with the district and its services.
There are mitigating factors that officials are quick to note: The school ratings were based on test results, and the testing system — WY-TOPP — is brand new, which officials had said would cause a dip. Casper’s two large high schools, Kelly Walsh and Natrona County, both had graduation rates over 80 percent, but the district’s alternative high school, Roosevelt, pulled down the overall rate. Because of the new testing system, the district had essentially suspended the target for its third goal — improve literacy rates to a certain percentage.
Superintendent Steve Hopkins said Friday that he was pleased with the district’s progress over the past five years. He pointed to Kelly Walsh having an 83.3 percent graduation rate in 2017 and Natrona County hitting 84 percent last year. He said that while the district hadn’t reached its goal of 85 percent, it had still risen from its 2014 levels (the rate that year was 75.4 percent).
“In these kinds of goals, it’s about the overall trend,” he said. “You’ll see a little peak-and-valley action, but you want to see that trend line going up.”
“Is the district exactly where we want to be? No,” Hopkins continued. “But we’re an organization of improvement. We ask kids to come every day and get better. We ask adults to come every day and get better.”
He said it was important to “disaggregate” the graduation rates and to note the progress attained by the two big high schools and the effects Roosevelt — which has more students than in years past — has on its overall rate. He said it would be “unfair” not to recognize the two large high schools’ growth.
“They have to be helped, they have to be coached, they have to be instructed through a different lens,” Hopkins said of Roosevelt students.
The board will spend the next several months drafting new goals for the next five years. The board in the past has lamented that the district wasn’t closer to hitting its targets. In mid-January, trustee Kevin Christopherson repeated that sentiment and asked for an autopsy of why the district fell short.
Hopkins told the Star-Tribune on Friday that he believed the strategies and policies that are in place are effective and will continue to bring growth. As examples, he ticked off professional learning communities — a program in which teachers meet regularly to share strategies on how best to educate students — and the district’s emphasis on ensuring all schools are broadly teaching to state-set standards.
But the board will consider new strategies and ideas over the coming months. On Monday, they identified five potential goals: graduation rate, literacy, performance, operational efficiency and learning environment — that students are learning in a safe, nurturing environment that is also based on achievement and growth.
How those goals will be shaped and examined is still up the air. Hopkins suggested the board may break down the graduation rate piece on a more individual basis. In other words, rather than a districtwide number, it may be broken down with individual goals for each high school or for the two main high schools. On Monday, trustee Debbie McCullar expressed a similar desire.
“We have a couple of schools that pull down our other schools,” she said.
Trustee Clark Jensen said the district had made progress in recent years.
“We shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much,” he said. “It’s hard to turn the Titanic.”
Still, even if the district just judged itself by the performance of its two big high schools, its graduation rate would still be a least a couple of points below its 85 percent target. The presence of an alternative high school doesn’t provide an answer for why only a third of the district’s schools are rated as at least meeting expectations — well below the 100 percent mark set by the board five years ago. District officials say the ratings are affected by the presence of a new test statewide, but last year, when the previous test was in place, the majority of schools still rated as partially meeting or below.
Trustee Dave Applegate said Monday he wanted to look closer at the district’s plans for meeting its goals over the next few months.
“I think we need to be ready to really look closely at our strategies,” he said, “because we really didn’t say it, but if we graded ourselves on how we did over the last five years — I don’t know how highly ...”
He turned to the assembled staff.
“I guess I’d ask you guys to grade ourselves,” he said.
“You don’t really have to tell me what your grade is,” he said. “I think we look at it, and we have a sense that we still have work to do.”