Austin focused on grads

Published 10:53 am Monday, March 18, 2013

District, state shoot for higher graduation rates

When Minnesota set its sights on reaching a 90 percent high school graduation rate Wednesday, it was nothing new to Austin High School.

“Our goal has always been to get to 90 percent,” said Brad Bergstrom, AHS principal. “That’s where we’d like to be.”

That’s what the whole state’s shooting for. GradMinnesota, a collaborative effort launched Wednesday, puts the state on track to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. The initiative is part of GradNation, a nationwide effort to close achievement gaps and raise graduation rates.

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At AHS, the four-year graduation rate in 2012 was 84.1 percent, continuing a trend that wavers between 81 and 87 percent over the past five years, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education. Albert Lea High School measures slightly below the same level with 82.5 percent of students graduating in four years in 2012, while Owatonna Senior High’s rate sits higher at 89.6 percent.

The numbers dip when looking at Austin Public Schools as a complete district, which would add in students in the Austin Area Learning Center and the Horizon Program for students who have a mental health component or behavioral issue. The composite 2012 graduation rate for the district as a whole is 74.8 percent — significantly higher than the district in Albert Lea, which sits at 63.9 percent, and lower than in Owatonna and Rochester, where the rates are 83.9 percent and 81.4 percent, respectively.

Statewide, Austin Public Schools falls 2.8 percent below the Minnesota district average of 77.6 percent.

Bergstrom said it’s important to note AHS’ graduation rate only includes those students who were able to complete their high school requirements by the date the state marks as four years of classes. That means students who finish up the last few credits of their schooling shortly after the end of the spring semester, such as through summer classes, are not included, even if they are able to graduate on time to attend college in the fall.


Encouraging timely graduation

AHS makes a significant effort to prevent students from taking more than four years to graduate, Bergstrom said.

“We run a credit recovery program at night for our seniors,” he said.

The three eight-week sessions allow students to do makeup work on classes they failed to earn the credits needed for graduation.

“The idea is we want to maintain the hope for kids that they’re going to graduate,” Bergstrom said.

And while there are options for seniors to set themselves on course to graduate during the last stretch of their education, not all pro-graduation efforts wait until the later stages of a student’s enrollment. School staff work to identify students at risk early on, Bergstrom said, as a preventive measure against those students not graduating on time or at all. Some of those are students who come from different districts and are not accustomed to the type of instruction or expectations the school provides.

“We do get a fair number of students that come to us who have not had any exposure to the education system in Austin,” he said. “We will work very hard to make sure kids get their diploma with their peers in the four years.”

The high school’s success coach program also helps students make their graduation goals. Success coaches help students get the classes and scholarships they need, as well as navigate any difficulties they have in the academic, social and emotional aspects of attending school.

There’s no one prevailing factor that stops students at AHS from graduating. Family decisions can influence some students, while personal choices others make will inhibit them.

Of the 15.9 percent of AHS students who don’t graduate in four years, Department of Education data lists students as evenly split between continuing to attend classes, dropping out and falling under the “unknown” category. Students who move to a different state or country and cannot be tracked by counselors or teachers fall under “unknown.”

Reaching and exceeding a 90 percent graduation rate is something AHS will continue to strive toward, Bergstrom said.

“It’s a tremendous idea on paper to want to do,” he said. “There are just so many unique circumstances kids lives get wrapped up into.”



At the state level, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius will co-chair GradMinnesota. Cassellius said the initiative was a way to continue investing in schools.

“We are on track toward ensuring every student crosses the finish line and graduates well prepared for college, career and life,” she said in a statement. “But this work is just beginning.”

Lt. Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon agreed.

“The success of our economy and the dreams of our students rely in large part on the investment we make in education, and the efforts we undertake to ensure every child has the opportunity and supports they need to graduate from high school,” she said. “That is progress worth fighting for.”