“We are remarkably proud of the improvement we are seeing on this critical benchmark of success,” Superintendent Heath Morrison said during a news conference at Sparks High School on Wednesday.
The graduation rate, which now stands at 70 percent district-wide, is calculated by tracking the number of entering ninth graders who receive their diploma four years later, rather than only judging the number of 12th graders who graduate on time. This ensures the rate is not inflated, Morrison said.
But the good news for area students doesn’t end with increased graduation rates. Achievement gaps between races have closed as well. In fact, graduation rates either improved or remained steady for all ethnic groups.
Rates for Hispanic students experienced the greatest surge, shooting up 10 percent over one year. Meanwhile, rates for African-American students improved 4 percent, for Asian students 6 percent and for white students 5 percent.
Only American Indian students saw no increase in their graduation rates. The rate for this demographic remained at 50 percent, but that is a 6 percent improvement over two years ago.
Every high school in the district improved its graduation rate and Sparks High School led the way, rising to 68 percent last year from 53 percent in the 2009-10 academic year.
“The district set a goal for us to increase our graduation rate by 4 percent in 2011,” said Sparks Principal Wanda Shakeenab. “When I went back to my school to discuss this with my staff, I challenged them to surpass all limitations and district expectations … and we got it done.”
Two former Sparks High students and one current senior class student spoke Wednesday about their own improvements.
Jackie Cook graduated about a month ago after finishing up summer school. The 18-year-old had been living on her own, holding down a part-time job and paying her own bills during her senior year, but that didn’t keep her from her goal.
“I wanted it and I wouldn’t stop until I got it,” she said of earning her diploma.
Rebeca Avendano also recently graduated, but her background didn’t make it easy.
“I’m the first to graduate from my family,” she said.
Casey Agundez, a senior this year, said he struggled to keep his grades up in his first few years of high school, but with encouragement from his cancer-stricken grandmother, he is on pace to graduate this year.
“I know graduation is so important,” he said. “I’m really wanting to get a 4.0 so I can get a scholarship.”
The school district’s improved graduation rates have earned it a place as a finalist for a national education award.
In just his third year on the job, Morrison has brought enormous success to the school district, but the work doesn’t stop there, he said.
Alternative education programs and re-engagement centers are part of a wide net cast to support students inside and outside of school. In addition, WCSD officials said they intend to improve college and career readiness by enrolling more students in more rigorous classes, including Advanced Placement courses.
And this Saturday, the WCSD will kick off the Door-to-Door for Student Achievement campaign, in which school officials and community leaders, including Gov. Brian Sandoval and state Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, will visit the homes of students not enrolled in school or those with poor attendance who are at risk of dropping out.
“We are on a journey from good to great,” Morrison said.