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Duluth high school graduation rate improves, but lags behind state

(2016 file / News Tribune)

Duluth's graduation rate got a small boost, but it's still below the state average, according to annual data released by the Minnesota Department of Education on Tuesday.

The Duluth school district's on-time graduation rate increased by 1 percentage point to 76 percent. The state average is 82.7 percent, the highest rate on record, and a tiny uptick from last year.

Duluth saw graduation rate gains for several groups of students, with the most sizable for Native American and special education students. But some groups, over a period of five years, haven't made necessary progress to close achievement gaps, said assistant superintendent Amy Starzecki, noting in particular black students and students who identify as two or more races. The graduation rate gap between white and black students in Duluth is more than 40 percentage points.

"There is still work to do," Starzecki said.

Statewide, the gap between students of color and white students has narrowed, but what remains — 18.7 percent between them — is still fairly wide.

"While our graduation rates have continued to climb and gaps are narrowing, we have too many students who are not receiving a diploma," said state education commissioner Brenda Cassellius in a statement. "We have so much more work to do to ensure all children have equitable opportunities and receive the support they need in order to graduate on time and ready for life."

In Duluth, the Native American graduation rate increase was 17 percentage points, to 55 percent. Other groups were mostly flat, with black students still hovering around 36 percent.

Denfeld High School made noticeable progress in improving its graduation rate, which grew to 80 percent in 2017.

Starzecki pointed to the success of a grant-funded program at Denfeld for special education students who are black or Native American — Denfeld has high numbers of both — that involves the use of mentors who monitor attendance, grades and behaviors, along with some other programs that focus on relationship-building.

"In general, the sense when I am there is how important relationships are with students and educators," Starzecki said. "That's the common thread."

The targeted special education program, which is in its third year, has probably had an impact on graduation rates for black, Native American and special education students, she said.

The district also has career centers and integration specialists that work with students of color and Native American students to address barriers that could lead to dropping out.

Elsewhere in the region, the graduation rates of Harbor City International School and Hermantown decreased, while those of Proctor and Carlton increased. Esko had all but one student graduate.

The state data released Tuesday is being reported differently than in the past. Because of new federal reporting requirements, new identifying categories have been added. Those include students who identify as two or more races, migrant students and those experiencing homelessness. That means graduation rates going back to 2012 have been recalculated, and it also means previously reported data is no longer comparable.

Under the state's new accountability plan that was recently approved by the federal government, expectations are for 90 percent of Minnesota students to graduate on time by 2020, with no single student group's rate below 85 percent.

Beginning this year, any high school with a four-year graduation rate below 67 percent overall or for any student group will receive extra state support.

Find school graduation rates at