Massachusetts four-year high school graduation rates climbed for the ninth year in a row in 2015 with some of the largest gains recorded by some minority groups and students from low-income families. The second-largest school district in the state, Springfield, boasted the best improvement of any urban district in the state.
Across the state, 87.3 percent of students who entered high school in 2011 graduated four years later, a 1.2 percent increase from last year’s rate, according to data released by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The state’s drop-out rate declined to 1.9 percent, the lowest in 30 years.
While urban school districts fell behind the state averages, Springfield school officials said trends are in the right direction. Superintendent Dan Warwick said the graduation rate has increased more than 10 points since 2012 and the drop-out rate has been cut in half.
"The dropout rate is our most important number," said Warwick. " Those are our kids and they have no chance in life unless we can graduate them from high school."
Springfield’s graduation rate in 2015 was 66.7 percent, an increase of 5.1 percent from 2014. It was the second year in a row the district’s graduation rate improved by five points or better. The 5.1 percent dropout rate in 2015 was a 29 percent improvement from the year before, according to the school department.
Warwick credited teachers, principals, administrators and concerned community members for having a laser-like focus on graduation initiatives.
" While we are not where we want to be, we have made tremendous gains. More gains than anyone else in the state and we are going to keep it moving forward," said Warwick.
The Springfield schools implemented a data-driven approach to identify students, as early as the first grade, who may be at risk for dropping out and put programs and initiatives in place to keep them in school.
" Any support or effort we could put in place like graduation coaches, reaching out to every family, encouraging kids who dropped out to come back. They can even make up their courses online. It has been a relentless effort since I became superintendent," said Warwick.
He also credited the “Stay in School” initiative launched in partnership with the United Way of Pioneer Valley in 2013. United Way CEO Dora Robinson said the campaign mobilized faith-based and community organizations to work with parents in an effort to reduce chronic absenteeism in the schools.
" The research demonstrates that if kids miss a certain number of school days it seriously impairs their chances to graduation, and we had to get that message out to kids and parents, who I don't think really get it."
State education officials said all demographic groups improved their four-year graduation rates, and said the largest gains were made by Hispanics, black females, and low income-students overall. Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, in a conference call with reporters, noted the graduation rate for Hispanic students topped 70 percent for the first time.
" We are very heartened by that and absolutely dedicated to improving on that," said Chester.
The graduation rate for black students improved 2.6 percentage points to 77.5 percent. The graduation rate for white students was 91.6 percent, an increase of less than one percent.
The state education department was awarded a $200,000 federal grant last year to work with school districts to improve the high school graduation rate for students whose first language is not English. The graduation rate for English language learners is 64 percent.