One Third of Duluth Students Don't Graduate on Time

Posted at: 05/06/2013 1:12 PM | Updated at: 05/07/2013 1:27 PM
By: Travis Dill
tdill@wdio.com

Every Northland senior is expected to celebrate high school graduation this spring, but in Duluth Public Schools only 67 percent of students graduate on time.

Numbers from the Minnesota Department of Education show that only two out of three students go from freshman to graduating senior in four years.

So what happens to the other third of the students? The district said some keep working toward their diploma, some move away and the district loses track of them, and still others drop out.

“When students do decide to leave we're not always sure why. Sometimes a student is here one day and suddenly they're not,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth said.

But the problem isn't spread evenly across the city. Last year 376 seniors attended East High School and 90 percent of them graduated on time. 326 seniors attended Denfeld High School with 84 percent graduating on time. But school officials said 273 seniors did not attend either high school.

Those students received education at alternative sites. Director of Assesment, Tawnyea Lake, said that includes students in juvenile detention, residential treatment or the district's alternative high school, Unity High School.

“Our graduation rate at our Area Learning Center is about 25 percent,” Lake said.

She said the district knows which students are having trouble. She said the hundreds of students who do not graduate on time share some common risk factors.

“We're looking at students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, students who receive special education services and then our students in our various ethnic groups,” Lake said.

The on-time graduation rate is below 50 percent for each of those at risk groups.

Many students face big challenges. James, a senior at Denfeld High School, said homelessness nearly stole his chance for a diploma.

“I never thought I would graduate with the way my situation has gone, but I've crawled through it,” James said.

James said he did make mistakes like skipping school and using marijuana until 10th grade. This winter he said he found himself alone. 

“It was going to be hard going to school homeless. I didn't know where I'd sleep where I'd be,” James said.

James said he has slept under a bridge and in city parks, which is something most people can't understand.

“The commercial on the TV for the kid that bus hops. People have asked me if that's me a couple times, and that's something I wish I didn't have to be asked." James said.

Community leaders said his situation is more common than people think. School officials said nearly 500 Duluth kids, from pre-kindergarten to high school, are living without a consistent home or shelter.

“We should be ashamed. I mean, I think that it is an obligation that we have to support future generations and make sure that they have the best possible chance for success,” United Way President Paula Reed said.

Reed said schools cannot fix the problem alone. She said funding cuts make it hard for schools to help families below the poverty line. School officials said 40 percent of students in the Duluth district now qualify for free or reduced lunch. Reed hopes community intervention can encourage families to be more involved with their child's education. 

“There's a social emotional piece to sitting down to read with your child. There are different questions you can ask when you're in the grocery store that stimulate different kinds of thinking,” Reed said.

She said without that support, students are less likely to get a diploma and more likely to continue a cycle of poverty.

“I think that degree becomes even more important in terms of the types of jobs that are available that would provide a living wage,” Reed said.

James said a social worker at Denfeld helped guide him to graduation.

“I'm going to be one of the first people in my immediate family to graduate high school,” James said.

School officials said intervening as early as pre-school will help more kids make it across the stage with a diploma in their hands.

“Helping students on an individual basis and finding out what are those elements in their life that are preventing them from being successful and addressing them as needed,” Gronseth said.

But the fact remains that every year hundreds of Duluth students will not make it to graduation. Without a diploma they have a slim chance at simple dreams like James's.

“I hope to have my own house and a family some day and just be successful,” James said.

School officials said there are no quick fixes, but community leaders said the issue is an indictment of the city.

“To me that tells us we're failing a good number of our kids,” Reed said.

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