Iron County School District works to improve graduation rates with multi-level approach

File photo of sign in front of Iron County School District offices, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 20, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE — The Iron County School District is reflecting on the past year and doubling down on efforts to help its students graduate.

The Utah State Board of Education released the Utah 2019 Graduation Reports that break down rates for specific local educational agencies from 2017-2019.

Throughout the nearly 20-page report, the Iron County School District earned a graduation rate of 84.4%, resting just under the state average of 87.4%. Compared to previous years, the district experienced a 5.3 percentage point decline from 2018 and a 2.4 percentage point loss since 2017.

This fluctuation, however, is completely normal, Iron County School District Assessment and Data Director Steve Burton told St. George News. Despite the recent decrease, Burton said the biggest priority is getting students to graduate.

Marquee at Canyon View High School, Cedar City, Utah, June 26, 2012 | Photo by Paul Cozzens, St. George News

“The process we have in place works really well, we just see some fluctuation,” he said.

The district reported 641 students graduated in 2019. Cedar High School and Canyon View High School were neck and neck for the largest graduating cohort, with 250 and 241 students, respectively.

Parowan High School reported the highest graduation rate in the district, with over 98% of its students graduating in 2019, which is a total of 52 students in their graduating cohort. The Southwest Educational Academy had a graduation cohort of 98 students but had the lowest graduation rate in the district with just under 45%.

Southwest Educational Academy also saw the largest dip in graduation rates of any other high school in the district with almost 20 percentage points, which Burton said isn’t surprising. The academy is what the district calls an “alternative program,” where incarcerated students, students with safe school violations, and a voluntary few are set aside to take classes and prepare for graduation.

“That’s the one program where we will see a larger dip, or rise or fall, because of the nature of what that program does,” Burton said.

Most of the students in alternative programs are in jeopardy of not graduating, he said, and teachers are working with students who have a wide variety of needs. The schools are very flexible with how they work with students, Burton said, and have an assortment of classes students attend including online components.

In these instances, often times the students who do not graduate pursue and obtain their GED’s, but these students are not reflected on the graduation rate and count against the district.

Burton said graduation rates offer a broad sense of a school’s or district’s performance, but it’s more black-and-white than it should be.

“We are doing some things that wouldn’t necessarily show in a graduation rate,” he said.

Moving forward, the district is planning strengthen its approach to graduation rates, not necessarily change them, Burton said. Overall, the district will maintain its multi-level approach to teaching and evaluation.

First, Iron County has approached high school curriculum with a great emphasis placed on teacher collaboration. A statewide movement, Professional Learning Communities encourage teachers to collaborate with teachers of the same grade level and subjects to evaluate their data, identify students who are falling behind and provide strong interventions for students that need additional instruction.

Iron County School District, Burton said, allows teachers additional time to get together within their PLC’s. In the future, the district is planning to refine and strengthen the collaboration process to potentially identify struggling students earlier and begin interventions before these students fall too far behind.

“I think we have the structure in place for that,” Burton said. “We will continue to emphasize and make sure that our collaboration effort is working really, really well.

Furthermore, he said, the district is taking the time to educate students on their mental selves, taking advantage of available funds and space to develop its approach to social-emotional learning. Iron County School District administrators have realized the role that mental health plays in the learning process.

Burton asserted students who experience trauma or struggle with their mental health have a more difficult time learning, and if schools do not move to address these struggles, these students can become at risk of not doing well in school.

To address these concerns, the Iron County School District has placed social workers in schools, constructed calming rooms for students to use to refocus themselves, and provided students with access to therapy and counseling services.

The district will also be working with parents to get students back into classrooms, said Roy Matthews, Iron County School District director of secondary education. At Cedar High School especially, he said, there was a big connection between absenteeism and the drop-out rate, and the district is working with school officials and parents to address habitually truant students.

The third leg of the district’s approach to improving its graduation rates falls to its data collection. Burton said Iron County is going to take another look at its data to ensure it is accurate with emphasis placed on cleaning up students who leave the district for other regions, including home-school students.

“I’m confident that we’ll see an increase in this next year,” he said. “We’ve historically been above state averages. Our effort is to make sure that we’re getting our students to graduation because that’s really important to us.”

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