A new report from the Minnesota Department of Education shows significant improvement in the graduation rates of some Duluth student groups, and highlights other areas where the district still falls short of the state average.

Denfeld High School saw a large increase in graduation rates among general education students — an 11.84% hike from 2018 (79.87%) to 2019 (91.71%). Graduation rates among general education students are the highest since Denfeld reopened after renovations in the 2011-2012 year.

Among all students, including special education, Denfeld saw a 4.14% increase from 2018 (73.73%) to 2019 (77.87%) but is still down from 2017 (80.36%). Denfeld's 2012 graduate rate was 84.16% among all students.

“Denfeld’s increase is a great celebration point and we are really excited to see that,” Assistant Superintendent Jeff Horton said.

East High School's graduation rate among general education students decreased less than 1% from 2018 (95.89%) to 2019 (95.67%) and is down 0.53% from 2017 (96.2%).

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East’s graduation rate among all students, including special education, decreased by 1.08% from 2018 (93.72%) to 2019 (92.64%) and is on par with 2017 (92.94%).

Public speaking teacher Danielle Westholm takes a selfie with Ezra Prickett as students line up for the processional during East High School Commencement at the DECC Symphony Hall in Duluth June 5, 2019. East saw a slight decrease in graduation rates from 2018 to 2019.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Public speaking teacher Danielle Westholm takes a selfie with Ezra Prickett as students line up for the processional during East High School Commencement at the DECC Symphony Hall in Duluth June 5, 2019. East saw a slight decrease in graduation rates from 2018 to 2019. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“I think our teachers do an amazing job working with kids,” Horton said. “I think our building administrators are doing a great job of coaching and supporting our teachers and I think our district leadership is doing the same."

Horton acknowledged that Duluth schools still have areas in need of improvement. However, the district is outpacing the state of Minnesota in Native American graduate rates.

The state's Native American graduation rates decreased slightly, and have remained stagnant at 50%-51%. The Native American graduation rate at Duluth schools increased nearly 10% from 2018 (45.17%) to 2019 (55%).

“The highest-performing schools that are outpacing our state average, a majority of them engage in formal consultation with our tribal nations,” Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said during a conference call with media Thursday. “Formal consultation is a process where they establish a formal partnership around a shared responsibility to better meet the needs of our Native students.”

Horton said he believes the Check & Connect intervention program is contributing to Denfeld's Native American graduation rate increase.

The program is used with K-12 students who show warning signs of disengagement with school and helps identify those who are at risk of dropping out, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Students are assigned a mentor who regularly reviews their performance and intervenes when problems are identified.

Horton said the program at Denfeld has had great success and they are working on implementing it at East.

“I think that is going to help us in the long term with some of the graduation rates,” he said, adding the district is also working at the elementary and early childhood levels to prevent gaps from developing early in school.

“It will take time to see those results,” Horton said.

Duluth is falling short of the state average in the graduation gap between black and white students. In 2019, Duluth had a 23.66% difference in graduation rates between black and white students. That gap increased from 2018 (18.5%) to 2019 (23.66%), though it's much smaller than 2017 (44%). The graduation gap statewide is 18.8%. In 2018, that gap statewide was 21%.

“There’s continued work that still needs to be done — at the district level, in the state and country — to make sure all students are achieving at a high level,” Horton said.

Statewide graduation rates for 2019 reached a historic high of 83.7% and saw graduation gaps closing for all groups except Native American students.

“I’m proud of all of our students, educators and schools for again posting the highest graduation rate on record," Ricker said. "Reaching that high school graduation milestone is a pivotal moment on a student’s path to success because it opens up so many different life options.

"That’s why these gaps in our graduation rates are unacceptable. Students of all races and ZIP codes deserve the same opportunity at achieving the life they have always dreamed.”