BEMIDJI -- Bemidji Area Schools saw record four-year graduation rates in 2019, mirroring statewide successes, while Native American graduation rates continue to struggle both locally and statewide.

“We’re happy with the increase, and just like the state, we’re wishing we could do more better and do more, more quickly, but it’s going to be a long process," Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz said. "We’re doing what we can to analyze both our successes and areas where we need to improve.”

Statewide, Minnesota seniors reached a historic graduation rate high of 83.7% in 2019, a 0.5% increase from 2018.

Locally, Bemidji Area Schools saw an overall increase of 1.71% from 2018, for a total four-year graduation rate of 78.05% in 2019.

The district graduation rate for Bemidji has steadily increased in recent years. The rate of graduation has jumped nearly 10% from a decade prior — the graduation rate was 69.34% for the 2009-10 school year.

While the state acknowledged overall successes in a press conference Thursday, March 5, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker commented on the stagnant graduation rate for American Indian students, which decreased this year by .02%, and has consistently hovered around 50%.

“When we look behind our overall data, we have a lot of work to do. We know that rates have hovered around 50% again for our American Indian students and we also know that our students experiencing homelessness or housing instability still have not even reached 50%. We are committed to continuing to look behind our overall graduation rates and make sure that we are addressing graduation rates for all of our student groups so that all of them can grow and be better supported,” Ricker said.

“That four-year graduation rate for our American Indian students is too low, we see that we are working hard to improve our support for Native American students,” she added.

Similar to statewide results, the American Indian graduation rate for Bemidji has also declined, from 50.98% in 2018 to 46% in 2019, a 4.98% decrease.

Superintendent Lutz disapproved of Bemidji’s drop in Native American graduation, but acknowledged it is something the district is trying to change.

“This is something that often takes many years to see results, but we’re working really hard on improving our cultural sensitivity and humility in ways that help us as non-Native Americans to be more sensitive to the needs of Native American students and to embed more of our curriculum with cultural knowledge and awareness so students feel more engaged and validated,” Lutz said.

Moving forward

Lutz said his goals for the future include increasing support for minority students and providing more support for students in difficult financial and emotional situations, especially those who in foster care or experiencing homelessness.

“We have a lot of issues (facing students in) Beltrami County and in our school district that we are trying to address and I believe we are making progress, but it takes time, and it might take another year or two or three before we start seeing some measurable outcomes,” he said.

He also acknowledged the difficulty of achieving these goals without an increase in funding.

“Every year it seems we are doing more with less. It would be very helpful, if we could find more funding to help pay for smaller classrooms, more school counselors and psychologists and more support overall for our students.”

He added, “through this we hope to find our students staying more engaged, staying in school, staying out of trouble and learning more."

County graduation rates

Beltrami County saw an overall increase in student graduation from 2018, but a slight decrease in graduation rates within the American Indian student population. Students showed a 64.87% graduation rate in the county in 2019 (386 out of 595 students graduated in four years), up 0.28% from 64.59% in 2018 (394 out of 610 students graduated in four years).

Other local graduation rate changes:

  • Blackduck Public School District showed an 84.2% graduation rate for 2019, a 3.7% increase from 2018.

  • Bagley Public School District showed a 75.3% graduation rate for 2019, a 15.2% decrease from 2018.

  • Cass Lake-Bena Public Schools showed a 46.1% graduation rate for 2019, a 6.5% increase from 2018.

  • Red Lake Public School District showed a 33.8% graduation rate for 2019, a 9.3% increase from 2018.

  • Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School showed a 60% graduation rate for 2019. The Minnesota Department of Education did not provide four-year graduation rates for 2018.