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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO Bentonville High Principal Jack Loyd speaks during a graduation ceremony, Saturday, May 18, 2019 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

Tristen Morgan was in danger of not graduating on time. She missed a lot of school because of family issues, she said.

Her counselor recommended she enroll in Gateway, the Bentonville School District's alternative education program for high school students.

Morgan, 17, would have had to stay on Bentonville High School's main campus an extra semester if not for Gateway, where she was able to accelerate her studies and catch up on credits. She intends to enroll this fall at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

Morgan is one of a few thousand Northwest Arkansas seniors graduating this month. Most received their diplomas during ceremonies this weekend.

This year's graduation rates aren't known yet, but the 2018 statewide rate of 89.2% marked Arkansas' third straight year of improvement. The statewide rate was 84.9% for the class of 2015.

The U.S. Department of Education began collecting states' adjusted cohort graduation rates -- the percentage of first-time ninth-graders in public high schools who graduate with a regular diploma within four years -- in 2011, when the national rate was 79%.

The most recent national rate is 84.6%, from the graduating class of 2017. Arkansas' rate that year was 88%.

In Northwest Arkansas, 10 of the region's 15 traditional public school districts had better graduation rates in 2018 than they did in 2015. Seven exceeded the 2018 state average.

Bentonville has posted at least four straight years of improvement, from 88.1% in 2014 to 93.5% in 2018, according to state data. Gateway is one possible reason for that.

The number of graduates coming out of Gateway has steadily increased from 42 in 2016 to 75 this year, according to Christie Jay, the district's director of federal programs who also oversees Gateway.

"It's a smaller, tailored environment for those at-risk kids who just can't handle being on a campus of 3,000 kids," Jay said, referring to the enrollment at Bentonville High School. "With that smaller setting, the adults who are there very purposefully try to develop relationships with those kids to help support them."


Gateway is set up so students can earn as many as 10 credits per year as opposed to the seven they could earn in a regular high school, said Sarah Miser, a Gateway administrator.

Each of the area's other large school districts -- Springdale, Rogers and Fayetteville -- offer alternative educational environments similar to Gateway.

Chad Dorman frequently skipped school during his freshman and sophomore years in Rogers.

"I didn't think it was necessary. I thought it was pointless," said Dorman, 19. "When I went, I didn't know what to do, and the teachers weren't helping me."

He moved to Texas to live with his father. There he found the help he was seeking. His attitude toward school turned around, as did his academic achievement.

Upon returning, he enrolled at the Crossroads Learning Center, the Rogers School District's alternative education center, where he got all the academic help he needed. He entered Crossroads in fall 2017 with 11 credits and left with 25.

Arkansas requires public-school students to achieve at least 22 credits to graduate. Rogers requires 24.

Dorman, 19, graduated from the district this weekend. He's on his way to the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Okla.

Without Crossroads, he said, "I would've dropped out a long time ago."

Various methods

Alternative education settings are just one way school administrators across the region are working to improve graduation rates.

Bentonville Superintendent Debbie Jones said a combination of factors are at play.

Jones credited Leandra Cleveland, the district's data specialist, with ensuring Bentonville's numbers are correct and the district is not held accountable for students who moved to another school.

The district is setting up "real, relevant learning opportunities" for students that let them better understand what career possibilities await them, thus keeping them more engaged in school, Jones said. The district also is growing its virtual school offerings to appeal to students who prefer that sort of delivery.

Students who are expelled are offered a chance to participate in virtual learning, she said.

A state law that takes effect this summer requires all public school districts to offer expelled students digital learning courses or alternative educational services.

Fayetteville is another local district that has made significant strides on its graduation rate, from 79.9% to 92.2% in the past three years.

Jay Dostal, who's finishing his first year as Fayetteville High's principal, said improvement starts with a staff committed to student success. Their goal is to reach a graduation rate of 100%, he said.

"It's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach, and we need to be creative in finding ways for kids to be successful," Dostal said.

And the earlier schools intervene to catch kids who need more help, the better, he said.

"If we are trying to help kids graduate and we're just getting to them in their 11th or 12th grade year, that's too late. The graduation rate actually starts in the elementary schools. This is truly the work of an entire school district," Dostal said.

Educators have had to adapt to a new generation of students with shorter attention spans, Dostal said. That's meant moving away from delivering lectures all day and toward facilitating self-directed learning.

"We need to be able to get them engaged quickly and actively have them be participants in the classroom," Dostal said.

Springdale, the state's largest school district, had an 86 percent graduation rate last year, the lowest rate among the region's four big districts.

Marcia Smith, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, cited numerous ways Springdale tries to get students to graduate.

One is to connect junior high students to a program of study or a specific interest so staff can personalize their education plan. Students are more engaged in school if they are connected to the learning, Smith said.

Many students complete programs of study based on their interests. Completion leads to internship opportunities, she said.

The district hired an academic coach a few years ago to push high school students toward high achievement. Mike Fotenopulos has filled that role since 2017, promoting college and career readiness among students.

Also important is getting students to show up for class, "So we have a clear focus on attendance," Smith said.

Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, said smaller schools tend to have higher graduation rates, which she attributes to closer personal relationships between students and staff.

The office also has done some research indicating high schools that serve only 10th through 12th grades have higher graduation rates than ninth- through 12th-grade schools, even when controlling for things like poverty, she said. Springdale is the only large Northwest Arkansas district with high schools that are grades 10 through 12.

McKenzie said there seems to be something positive about not forcing students to adjust to a new building at the same time they start accumulating credits toward graduation.

State's view

Arkansas' improved graduation rate shows up among most subgroups of students as well.

For example, 77.5% of black students graduated in 2015 and 85.6% graduated in 2018. The rate among Hispanic students increased from 84.5% to 85.8%. The rate for economically disadvantaged students increased from 81.7% to 86.8%, according to the state Department of Education.

The only subgroup that didn't improve was English learners, which went from 85.9% in 2015 to 82.7% in 2018.

Subgroup graduation rates were reported for the first time on report cards released this year for Arkansas schools, school districts and the state.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson heralded the graduation rate news as "one of the most satisfying educational statistics that we've received in recent years," according to a department news release from last month. Schools have focused on improving educational experiences for students over the last several years, from increased course options to more flexibility to attend college classes, internships and work activities during school days, according to the release.

"The expansion of family and community engagement also is having a positive impact on educational goals," according to the release.

The department, looking to future improvement, cited the School Counseling Improvement Act, which Hutchinson signed into law in March.

The act requires school districts to develop a comprehensive school counseling program and plan. It is meant to reduce time counselors spend on administrative duties so they may spend at least 90 percent of their time providing direct and indirect student services, up from 75 percent in a 1991 law.

The state is holding school districts accountable for graduation rates now more than ever, which may help explain the rise, McKenzie said.

Graduation rates count toward the grades schools get on their report cards. The state also gives financial awards to the top 10 percent of public schools that achieve high student academic growth, which includes graduation rates where applicable.

McKenzie, however, noted the increased graduation rates haven't corresponded with an increase in college-going rates in Arkansas.

"Even though they're graduating at somewhat higher rates, it doesn't necessarily mean they are more prepared for life after high school," she said. "ACT scores have been consistently underwhelming, and so what is the higher grad rate really an indicator of, is the question."

Top 10 Graduation Rates

Here are the top 10 states by high school graduation rate for 2016-17, the latest year for which national statistics are available:

  1. Iowa, 91.0
  2. New Jersey, 90.5
  3. Tennessee, 89.8
  4. Texas, 89.7
  5. Kentucky, 89.7
  6. West Virginia, 89.4
  7. Alabama, 89.3
  8. Nebraska, 89.1
  9. Vermont, 89.1
  10. New Hampshire, 88.9

14. Arkansas, 88.0

United States: 84.6

Source: National Center for Education Statistics


These are U.S. median usual weekly earnings by educational attainment in 2018. Data are for people 25 and older; earnings are for full-time wage and salary workers.

Doctoral degree: $1,825

Professional degree: $1,884

Master’s degree: $1,434

Bachelor’s degree: $1,198

Associate degree: $862

Some college, no degree: $802

High school diploma: $730

Less than a high school diploma: $553

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey

NW News on 05/19/2019

Print Headline: Northwest Arkansas schools working to boost graduation rates

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