The Duluth school district's graduation rate increased last year, maintaining the seesaw-like pattern seen in recent years.

Since 2011, the overall rate has wavered between 74.8 percent and 78 percent. For 2015 it was 77.5 percent - and there were increases in the graduation rates for most subgroups except for that of Native Americans, whose graduation rate plunged again after a large increase the year prior.

"Our goal is that we don't want fluctuations over time," said Amy Starzecki, assistant superintendent of the district, of the overall rate. "We're happy to see the data point is higher than last year but we want to make sure the trend line continues to go up."

Duluth students again fall below the state average, which is 81.9 percent, up just a tick from last year. Statewide, almost all student groups had increased graduation rates.

"Every percentage point, every increase, whether it's one decimal point or double digits, represents another student who is graduating high school prepared for their next step in life," said state education commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

The state has a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, leaving Duluth 12.5 percentage points from meeting it.

Groups that for years have had low graduation rates in Duluth saw modest increases. The graduation rate for black students rose slightly to 47 percent, although the gap between that group and white students grew because the rate for white students grew as well.

While there was an increase there, Starzecki said, it hasn't been steady.

"We have more work to do," she said. "We want that 47 number to be much higher than that."

The gap between Native American and white students also grew, as the Native American graduation rate fell from nearly 49 percent to 32 percent, back to where it was in 2013.

Statewide numbers show steady growth in the graduation rate for Native American students, said Edye Howes, coordinator of American Indian education for the Duluth school district. But in Duluth, the numbers for that group - which represents about 6 percent of enrollment - have fluctuated steeply from year to year.

Duluth's numbers need to change, Howes said, which is why she and the 11 employees in her department each year talk with students and their families about what they need, how the district can be inclusive and accommodate cultural and educational needs, and how it can update curriculum so Native American students are represented in it. Increased funding from the state for Native American education this year will help in those efforts, Howes said, noting also the Ojibwe language offering at the high school level and the new immersion program at Lowell Elementary.

The five-year graduation rate for Native American students is 50 percent, Howes said, which shows that "so many more American Indian students are taking a little bit longer to graduate."

Starzecki said the district will work with the American Indian education department, the Office of Education Equity and the Native American community to "drill down to how do we support all students, but specifically this subgroup."

Special education and low-income graduation rates increased in Duluth, but remain less than 60 percent - below state averages.

On a school level, Duluth East increased its graduation rate to 94.5 percent last year while Denfeld - with a graduating class half the size of East - dropped to 75 percent. The district's alternative high school, the Area Learning Center, increased its rate by 15 percentage points, moving from 14.6 percent to 29.3 percent. The school works with at-risk youths. Relationship-building is an important part of what educators do there, Starzecki said, and a lot of time has been put into that.

Duluth had a 7.6 percent dropout rate for 2015, with 13 percent of that class continuing on in studies for a fifth year.

Starzecki said educators are excited about a new, five-year federal grant that will assist work to decrease the number of dropouts and improve graduation rates for black and Native American students with disabilities. The district will work with the state on its efforts.

 

Area district results

No major changes were seen in the graduation rates of the smaller districts surrounding Duluth. Hermantown was down slightly at 95.8 percent; Proctor was up a bit at at 89.8 percent; Lake Superior school district was up at 93.5 percent; Cloquet was down slightly at 92 percent and Esko was stable at 96.2 percent. Harbor City International charter school in Duluth was up a bit at 82.6 percent.

Find every school's graduation rate at the Minnesota Department of Education's Minnesota Report card at rc.education.state.mn.us.