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Minnesota’s overall high school graduation rate hit an all-time peak in 2018, as the state made some progress in narrowing the persistent graduation gap between students of color and white students.

Just over 83% of students graduated on time in 2018, according to data released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Education. That was up about half a percentage point from a year earlier.

Yet major gaps remain between the graduation rates of white students, more than 88% of whom graduated in four years, and the rates of students of color. About two-thirds of Hispanic students graduated on time, along with just over half of American Indian students — virtually the same rates as a year earlier. Black students made a 3 percentage point gain over the previous year, with more than 67% graduating on time in 2018.

The graduation rate for white students is about 17 percentage points higher than the rate for students of color. However, that gap has been steadily declining over the past five years.

“I am proud that the graduation gap is closing, but I am not satisfied,” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said. “As we move forward, I am eager to partner with communities across our state to better support all of our students.”

Ricker, who took over as the state’s top education official earlier this year, said she’s spent the last several months visiting districts that have successfully narrowed their achievement gaps and intends to share those strategies with schools across the state. In the Deer River school district on the Iron Range, where 70% of American Indian students graduated on time last year, Ricker said the addition of more American Indian courses helped more students stay in school.

In the top five

In the metro area, a charter school — the Math and Science Academy in Woodbury — had the highest graduation rate, with 100% of 54 students graduating on time. The rest of the top five were all traditional school districts in the western suburbs. The Wayzata, Minnetonka, Orono and Watertown-Mayer districts each graduated around 97% of their students.

Nontraditional districts and schools — including a handful of charter, online and alternative schools, and some intermediate districts, which serve students with complex mental health and behavioral needs — had the lowest rates in the metro; 18 of those schools or districts graduated fewer than half of their students.

Among traditional districts, Brooklyn Center ranked at the bottom, with about 62% of students graduating. But that represented a considerable jump from a year earlier, when just half of its students graduated on time.

Minneapolis Public Schools’ graduation rate was up about 2 percentage points to 69%, continuing a trend of significant improvement for that district. Districtwide rates also were up for American Indian and black students. But while the district saw substantial gains at a handful of its schools — including Wellstone International High School, a destination for English learners where the graduation rates improved by 26 percentage points in a single year — it saw declines at more buildings.

Five Minneapolis high schools — Edison, Patrick Henry, North, Roosevelt and Wellstone — account for the five lowest graduation rates of all traditional high schools in the metro area.

Eric Moore, the district’s chief of academics and accountability, said leaders are thrilled about progress at Wellstone, where a partnership with Minneapolis Community and Technical College has allowed English learners to take classes on campus and see themselves as “college material.” But officials will work to better understand what caused some of the district’s largest high schools to lose ground.

In St. Paul, the district’s graduation rate declined 2 percentage points, to 75%. Like Minneapolis, the district made strides at some schools, including Humboldt High and Open World Learning Community, but saw matching declines at others. The Central High School graduation rate dropped by 8 percentage points from a year earlier, while Como Park High saw a 12 percentage point drop.

St. Paul leaders said the districtwide dips, including for almost all racial and other student groups, go against a recent trend of annual upticks.

“We want to make sure the 2018 results can be considered an anomaly and not part of a trend,” said Stacey Gray Akyea, the district’s director of research, evaluation and assessment.

The district serves almost 80% students of color and roughly a third English learners, and officials touted ongoing gains in the five- and six-year graduation rate, noting some students from traditionally underserved backgrounds need extra time. The district also saw an almost 10 percentage point jump in graduation for American Indian students, to more than 62%.

At metro high schools that saw some of the largest graduation gains in recent years, leaders pointed to efforts to intervene rapidly when students veer off course and to connect them to possible careers. In Anoka-Hennepin, where Anoka High School’s graduation rate has climbed steadily to 91%, officials credited a push to create a tighter-knit school culture under the “Anoka Family” banner and a new focus on science, technology and art.

“The ‘Anoka Family’ is something that’s real there,” said Superintendent David Law. “That carries you through to graduation.”

The state’s largest school district also saw a 3 percentage point uptick in its overall graduation rate and marked gains for black and American Indian students.

Aiming high

At the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Commissioner Dennis Olson noted that stubborn gaps in the graduation data continue and in fact worsen at the higher education level. The state overall is on track to meet a legislative goal of ensuring 70% of adults have a postsecondary credential by 2025 — but for minority groups those rates lag behind significantly.

Only 22% of American Indians have such credentials, and roughly half of them have a certificate rather than a college degree. Olson, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, noted a proposal in Gov. Tim Walz’s budget to ramp up recruitment and training of American Indian teachers.

The Department of Education pointed to a range of programs offered by the state’s schools — including career readiness training, alternative programs and advanced courses — as evidence of schools finding success in tailoring their offerings to a wide range of students. But the state still has significant work ahead to meet goals it set last year. At that time, officials said that by 2020, Minnesota’s statewide graduation rate should be 90%, with no single group of students falling below 85%.

Asked if those goals are attainable, Ricker said the state was right to aim high.

“We should absolutely keep an eye on that goal as we work,” she said.