Duluth graduation rate rebounds

After a sizeable dip, the school district’s Class of 2022 posted a 76% four-year graduation rate, a 5% increase that puts it back in line with prepandemic figures.

Students in black robes participate in graduation
Duluth East graduate Oskar Lindaman, center, moves his tassle during commencement at Amsoil Arena on June 8.
Clint Austin / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Four-year graduation rates at the Northland’s most populous school district rebounded to approximately pre-COVID levels.

About 76.6% of the 767 students in Duluth Public Schools’ Class of 2022 graduated in four years, according to data published Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Education. That’s about five percentage points higher than the 71.4% mark hit by the Class of 2021 and in line with the 74%-78% graduation rate of each class since 2012.

With that gain, the state is close to reaching pre-pandemic levels once again.

That increase back to status quo is at least partly because the district has emerged from the depths of the pandemic, according to Superintendent John Magas. A large part of learning comes down to student relationships and direct contact with students, he said. The waning pandemic has made room for district staff to focus more on teaching and learning, according to Assistant Superintendent Anthony Bonds.

Magas noted that each student subgroup — male students, female students, special education students, and students of each ethnicity or race measured by the state, among other delineations — posted a higher graduation rate, too. Students who’ve been “historically underserved,” such as Black and American Indian students, didn’t post as large of an increase.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Magas said.


The 5% increase in the district’s graduation rate is nonetheless something to celebrate, he added. The statewide graduation rate rose about 0.2 percentage points, to 83.55%.

Denfeld, East gap persists

The graduation rate gap between eastern and western Duluth students has remained large.

About 92% of East High School’s class of 2022 graduated in four years, which is more or less in line with similar figures recorded over the past several years. At Denfeld High School, that figure was 73% — an improvement from the 69.79% figure from the Class of 2021, but still a bit lower than pre-pandemic numbers.

Magas said part of that gap comes from historical factors, such as generational poverty and trauma, of which there is more in the Denfeld area. Many Denfeld students need additional academic help, according to Bonds. Students who need that help are more concentrated in western Duluth than they are in the more affluent eastern portion of the city.

Both Magas and Bonds pointed to the Check & Connect program, a St. Louis County-funded effort that pairs struggling students with mentors who help them improve their grades, attendance, study skills and so on. The district has used that county money to expand the program into each of its middle and high schools and its Alternative Learning Center, and Bonds said district administrators plan to train more staff in program methods. The BARR program at Denfeld, which stands for "Building Assets, Reducing Risks," works along similar lines to help students there increase their test scores, fail fewer classes, and more.

Duluth Public Schools also plans to use some of its remaining COVID aid to keep on the district payroll counselors, social workers and other staff who can help students, Bonds said.

Last year, Check and Connect boasted a 75% reduction in absenteeism and a 62% reduction in suspensions among enrolled students


Student in maroon uniforms graduate
Framed by large wooden doors in the lobby, graduates wait to enter the auditorium during the processional at the Denfeld Auditorium on June 9 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Statewide rate inches upward

Even with a substantial increase over the year before, the Duluth district’s graduation rate is nonetheless 6.9 percentage points lower than the statewide one, which has held relatively steady for years. Minnesota’s class of 2019, which was the last to not have at least some part of its schooling hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, posted a mark of 83.69%.

State administrators pointed out that graduation rates rose modestly among American Indian and Black students across Minnesota. The four-year rate for American Indian students rose from 58.6% among the class of 2021 to 61.1% among the class of 2022, and the same metric among Black students rose from 70.4% to 73.5%.

Also graduating at a greater clip were students receiving special education: 65.5% of special education students in the statewide class of 2022 graduated in four years, according to state data, compared to 63.9% of the class of 2021.

“Our students, educators and school communities persevered through the challenges of the past few years, and their unwavering commitment to excellence resulted in improved graduation rates. We celebrate this significant milestone and also recognize that there is still much to be done,” Willie Jett, state education commissioner, said in a Tuesday news release. “Working together, we will ensure that every student graduates from high school equipped with the tools and knowledge necessary for a successful future.”

Those same measurements at Duluth Public Schools went up, too, but are still considerably lower than the statewide average: 43.5% of American Indian students here graduated in four years, and 41.3% of Black students did likewise, up from 41.1% and 39.4%, respectively.

Worth noting is that Minnesota education administrators have been moving away from a federal definition of an American Indian student to a state one . Figures reported last year about the class of 2021 use the federal definition while those reported this year about the class of 2022 use the state definition, according to Kevin Burns, director of communications for the state education department. The 58.6% statewide graduation rate among the class of 2021, reported this week, uses the state’s definition of American Indian students, while the 52.51% figure for the same class, reported about a year ago, uses the federal one.

Also read
The Aug. 8 election will narrow the District 3 field from four to two.
The law makes Minnesota the first state to issue benefits to hourly school workers laid off after the school year ends on a permanent basis.
An hourlong poverty simulator held Thursday aimed to show the realities of those who live with little.
The deadline to file the proper paperwork is 4 p.m. Tuesday, May 30.
The university held its spring commencement ceremony Saturday at Wessman Arena
A banquet held Wednesday recognized the Indigenous students set to graduate next month.
Stephanie Hammitt was the college’s president from 2019 to 2022. She died in November after a battle with cancer.
A districtwide “roadmap” calls for more a rethink of class schedules, expanding the “Check & Connect” program, more alternatives to suspensions, a more diverse staff, and more
A compromise approved Monday by a committee of Minnesota lawmakers would, with a few exceptions, bar public schools from using American Indian mascots
Maria Oppelt launched North Shore Sugar when she was in middle school.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
What To Read Next
Get Local