The Times West Virginian

October 25, 2013

Several programs part of a positive trend of higher graduation rates

Times West Virginian

— Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that high school graduation rates are at their highest level since 1974. Using data from the 2009-10 school year, the report showed that more than 78 percent of high school students nationwide graduated on time, an increase from the 73 percent recorded in 2005-06.

An increase in graduation rates is happening in West Virginia as well, where new data show a steady climb over the past five years.

According to a report by The Associated Press, high school graduation rates have jumped 8.5 percent since the fall of 2008 — 79.3 percent of seniors graduated during the 2012-13 school year, up from 70.8 percent in 2008-09.

That’s likely due to a combination of retention and alternative-education programs in public schools plus an anti-truancy initiative the state Supreme Court launched in 2012, the AP reported.

“It’s working,” Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis said about the program, which holds parents and caregivers accountable when children miss too much school.

Davis said circuit court judges have embraced the program, and some counties have hired probation officers specifically to deal with truancy. Davis actually traveled to each of the state’s 55 counties to focus attention on the problem, explaining that eight of 10 people sitting in jail or prison are high school dropouts. Truancy also increases the risk of teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse.

“We either solve it — starting in preschool and kindergarten and planting the seed there — or we end up paying for it as a society, building jails and prisons,” Davis said. “That’s a no-brainer to me.”

As the AP reported, there are other factors helping the high school graduation rate climb:

• In 2010, legislators raised the legal dropout age to 17, requiring students to stay in school at least another year. Some counties raised that to 18 under a state-approved program.

• Also in 2010, lawmakers slashed the number of permissible absences from 10 to five.

• School districts are more diligent about communicating with the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles to enforce a longstanding law that requires schools to sign off on teenage drivers’ permits.

• West Virginia launched an early warning system that lets districts drill into data and identify children with key risk factors — behavioral issues, more than five absences or a failing grade in a major course.

• West Virginia is looking at more alternative education programs to get kids diplomas. Of the more than 800 seniors enrolled this past school year in Option Pathway, a combination of career and technical education and the state-approved curriculum, more than 370 earned diplomas.

As truancy officers continue to make such a powerful difference, there have been discussions about approaching lawmakers next year to make the positions mandatory. And although Davis said it’s unclear who might propose a bill, “once that happens, it’s just going to snowball.”

“There’s always room for improvement,” she said. “The good news is that as people see the numbers and they see the impact that this is creating on truancy and graduation rates, then everyone gets on board.”

The state has several programs designed to keep kids in school, and this positive trend is one that should continue to climb upward as the programs grow, ultimately helping more of the state’s students earn their high school degree.