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Most Alle-Kiski Valley school districts surpass 90 percent graduation rate

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 12:06 a.m.

Some Alle-Kiski Valley school districts are clawing their way toward 90 percent graduation rates, but most have reached that number.

Ten of the A-K Valley's 15 school districts graduated more than 90 percent of their seniors, according to the most recent data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Only one Alle-Kiski Valley school district, New Kensington-Arnold, failed to exceed the state's average graduation rate, according to those numbers from the 2010-2011 school year.

New Kensington-Arnold's graduation rate that school year was 80.8 percent.

A-K Valley school districts are following a national trend by reaching 90 percent graduation rates, according to a children's advocacy group.

America's Promise Alliance, which says it's the nation's largest child advocacy group, said that by 2020, only 10 percent of high school students will drop out before earning their diploma if graduation rates maintain their current pace.

America's Promise Alliance was formed out of the President's Summit For America's Future in 1997. At that summit, then-President Bill Clinton and former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford met to discuss the problems facing the country's youths.

“We're cautiously optimistic, that if the nation continues its progress. we'll reach that goal,” said Colleen Wilber, spokeswoman for America's Promise Alliance. “But there are still 23 states that aren't on pace to make the 90 percent goal.”

Pennsylvania is one of those 23 states, according to the alliance.

The state's graduation rate is above the national average, she said, but it is only rising at a 0.4-percent a year pace — not strong enough to get it to above 90 percent by 2020.

Districts react

New Kensington-Arnold Superintendent John Pallone said his district's state-reported graduation rate of 80.8 percent is erroneous.

“The prior administration had been reporting our numbers incorrectly,” Pallone said. “There's a nuance when you deal with graduating special needs students and how you count them toward your graduation totals.

“When we sat down with the state and told them what was going on, they said, ‘Your numbers are wrong for who knows how long.'”

Pallone said that when the next batch of graduation numbers are released, they will reflect New Kensington-Arnold's true graduation rate.

“We can't go back and edit what the state has,” he said. “But our new numbers are better. The 2011-2012 numbers will show an improvement.”

The Department of Education did not return multiple calls for comment on Pallone's claims.

Kiski Area had the A-K Valley's fourth-lowest graduation rate, at 87.3 percent, which is still almost 5 percent above the state's average graduation rate.

“We're trending up, but we won't be satisfied until we graduate 100 percent of our students,” said Scott Koter, Kiski Area's assistant to the superintendent. “We're pleased with our progress, but it won't be satisfactory until every student graduates.”

Koter said the district has come a long way in the last five years.

“We have a much deeper data culture,” he said of the district, which had a graduation rate of 81.7 percent during the 2004-2005 school year. “We're able to identify at-risk students at a much younger age.

“We have to have a pro-active monitoring system; that's a huge key.”

During the 2010-11 school year, school districts overall in the Alle-Kiski Valley graduated 92.4 percent of their students.

Attempts to reach Highlands officials for comment on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Two Alle-Kiski Valley school districts topped the 98 percent mark, Franklin Regional (98.5 percent) and Leechburg Area (98.2 percent).

“We focus on a lot of factors to make sure our district's doing well. Obviously this (graduation rate) is one of the big ones,” Leechburg Area Superintendent James Budzilek said.

Budzilek said Leechburg Area's small size — the school graduated 56 of 57 eligible students in 2010-2011 — is a positive when it comes to quantifying graduation rates.

“Having only graduated 50 some students per year, we're able to keep a close watch on our students,” he said. “A student doesn't get lost in a shuffle, like they could in a bigger school.

“We're able to keep a close eye on our students and identify any student who might be lacking.”

Keys to raising the rate

America's Promise Alliance's Wilber said that multiple factors have contributed to the country's increase in high school graduation rates.

“First, between 2006 and 2010, there were a couple of intense efforts to address the dropout rates,” she said. “A lot of people didn't realize that, on average, a quarter of the kids in this country weren't graduating.

“Also, over the last 10 years the availability of data, and how it's compiled has come a long way,” she added. “We need to have the data to see who's struggling and when they're struggling.

“A lot of the kids who dropout have been putting up ‘smoke signals' for help, for a long time.”

Wilber also said minority graduation rates have greatly increased in the last decade.

“The graduation rate for Hispanics has gone up 10 percent in the last 10 years,” she said. “And for African Americans, it's gone up about 6 or 7 percent.”

In 2010-11, Hispanic students graduated at a 64.6 percent rate in the state, while blacks graduated at a 65.3 percent clip.

All of the Alle-Kiski Valley's school districts graduated minorities at rates above the state averages.

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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