Graduation rates fall at some Westmoreland County high schools
National and state graduation rates are at a recent high, but not all districts across Westmoreland County have experienced the same gains in recent years.
Small districts like New Kensington-Arnold have seen graduation rates drop, going from 80.77 percent in 2010-11 to 69.34 percent — or 95 out of 137 students — during 2015-16.
Jeannette City also saw graduation rates decline during that six-year period, dropping from 77.27 percent during the 2010-11 school year to 73.02 percent in 2015-16, when 46 out of a possible class of 63 students graduated.
A similar pattern of shrinking cohorts and declining graduation rates also is taking place in slightly larger districts such as Greensburg Salem, where the graduation rate fell from 92.67 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 87.32 percent during 2015-16.
Statewide, the graduation rate climbed from 82 percent in 2010-11 to 86 percent in 2015-16, according to the most recent data available from the state Department of Education. Data from the most recent school year will not be available until 2019.
Data released by the National Center for Education Statistics, the research and statistics arm of the U.S. Department of Education, show that the national graduation rate for public high school students in the 2015-16 school year was 84 percent — “the highest it has been since the rate was first measured in 2010-11,” according to the most recent report. The rate in 2010-11 was 79 percent.
Support to the finish line
As the Westmoreland County graduation rate hovers around 92 percent, districts that have maintained or improved graduation rates say that supporting students inside and outside the classroom is key to getting them to the finish line. Graduation rates in the Norwin School District are among those that have held steady in recent years. During the 2015-16 school year, 369 of a possible 381 students graduated within four years, a graduation rate of 95.23 percent.
The district also reduced its dropout rate since the 2005-06 school year, when it reported 28 dropouts across grades seven through 12, a rate of 1.1 percent.
By 2015-16, that number fell to 12 students, or a dropout rate of 0.49 percent. Assistant Superintendent Timothy Kotch attributes this to the efforts of teachers, administrators, counselors and parents in mentoring students.
If teachers notice a student is struggling, they work to make sure that the student is connected to the appropriate staff and support services, like the Student Assistance Program, Kotch said.
That program is present in all public schools in Pennsylvania. It is comprised of trained school staff who can help students struggling with substance abuse or mental health challenges, for example.
Programs that ensure students are supported outside of school, like a backpack program that sends students home with food on the weekends, also help to keep students on track academically, Kotch said.
Keeping up with students outside of the classroom is also a priority at Hempfield Area, where the graduation rate was about 95 percent in the 2015-16 school year.
The dropout rate has hovered around 0.70 percent over the past decade, with 21 students across six grades dropping out during the 2005-06 school year compared to 18 in 2015-16. Though Hempfield Area graduation rates have been steady, Principal Kathy Charlton said that the needs of students have been more significant in recent years than in the past.
This includes supporting students with special needs or those from households where both parents or guardians are working, Charlton said.
“If they're working hard and they're here, we work to get them through,” Charlton said.