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UPDATED: Grad rates climb in Bemidji and beyond, but gap persists

BEMIDJI -- Bemidji Area Schools’ graduation rate climbed again last year.

About 76% of students in the school district’s class of 2018 graduated on time, according to data released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Education. That figure is about one point higher than last year’s and the highest since 2003, the earliest year for which data was readily available.

It’s still a few notches below the statewide average, which was 83.2% in 2018, but Bemidji’s four-year graduation rate has risen faster than the state’s: it was nearly 10 percentage points behind in 2014 but about seven points behind last year.

Education Department staff said the new statewide mark is higher than ever before. The four-year graduation rate has steadily risen for students throughout Minnesota, including those counted among non-white demographics.

The gulf between white and non-white students’ graduation rates persists, but the data released Tuesday indicates it has shrunk modestly since 2014. Statewide, white students’ grad rates increased by 1.9% while the rates for black and American Indian students increased by 7.2 and 2.7%, respectively.

“I am proud that the graduation gap is closing, but I am not satisfied,” said Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker. “As we move forward, I am eager to partner with communities across our state to better support all of our students.”

Ricker said she will use the data from the graduation report to help her identify programs that are effective, especially in improving the graduation rates of minority students.

“I am committed to focusing on where we are succeeding, so that these gaps close,” Ricker said. “I am solution-driven to determine where we can learn from programs that are working, and where we, as the Minnesota Department of Education, can offer additional support.”

Bemidji area

In Bemidji Area Schools as a whole, 50.9% of American Indian students graduated on time, a figure that’s about 30 percentage points lower than that of white students. The percentage of white students who graduate in four years has steadily risen, while the figure for American Indians has fluctuated between 40 and 53%, presumably due to a relatively small sample size among high schoolers. American Indian students make up about 17% of Bemidji Area Schools’ student body this year, according to state data.

The low figure for American Indian students is why Bemidji High School was “designated for improvement” in August by the state’s new North Star accountability system, which the Department of Education put in place under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.

North Star dinged any school with a graduation rate lower than 67% among any demographic group. BHS’s mark was 61% in 2017 and 57.5% last year.

That designation pushed leaders at the high school to work with staff at regional “centers of excellence” to consider issues facing Indigenous students and to work to address them. Superintendent Tim Lutz said he and a handful of other Bemidji Area Schools principals are scheduled to meet with center staff Wednesday, where they’ll go over the data released Tuesday and talk about ways they can keep students interested in school, like restorative practices, which emphasize making a victim whole more than punishing a perpetrator, and BHS’s career academies, which aim to give students a chance to dabble in different trades and career paths.

(Even if they eventually receive a diploma, students who drop out or “phase out” and then come back to school a year behind, academically, don’t get counted in the school’s four-year graduation rate. The state keeps data on five, six, and seven-year graduation rates as well.)

“Where are we not quite going as quickly as we want to be going. What can we continue to do to keep this trend going?” Lutz said.

Graduation rate trends for other school districts and charters in the Bemidji area were a mixed bag.

Red Lake School District graduated 24 members -- 24.5% -- of the class of 2018 on time, a number that’s lower than their 2017 figure but more-or-less in line with figures recorded since 2014.

Cass Lake-Bena Schools’ figure dropped from 53.5% in 2017 to 39.6% last year, but the raw number of graduates only dropped from 46 to 44.

Blackduck School’s graduation rate has fallen since 2014, when it was 88.2%, to 80.5% last year.

Two charter high schools, TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School and Voyageurs Expeditionary School, both notched five-year graduation rate highs: 82.9% at Trek and 72.7% at Voyageurs.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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