Fayette County’s graduation rate is in the bottom 15 of school districts in Kentucky, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of state data.
One of Fayette County Public Schools’ challenges is that the district’s 2016 graduation rate was below Kentucky’s average, consultants working on a strategic plan recently told the school board.
Superintendent Manny Caulk said graduation rates are simply one data point that confirms what he already knows: that the Fayette school district “provides a world-class education for many, but not all students.”
With more than 42,000 students, Fayette County is the second-largest school district in the state, and it has more English-language learners and more low-income and special-needs students than most districts. The district is battling an achievement gap between those student groups and other students.
Caulk said the district’s graduation rate is one reason he released a plan last year with 100 strategies to improve student achievement.
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“Since that time, we have placed college and career coaches in every high school and hired more teachers to work with students who have special needs, students whose home language is not English, and students who are identified as gifted and talented,” Caulk said.
The district’s four-year graduation rate in 2016 was 83.1 percent, compared to the state’s average of 88.6 percent.
The four-year graduation rate is defined as the percentage of students who graduate in four years, not counting transfers and student deaths.
According to a Herald-Leader analysis of state data, only 11 other districts had lower four-year graduation rates than Fayette County’s, including Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, with a rate of 80.1 percent. Thirty-four of the 168 Kentucky school districts with high schools had four-year graduation rates lower than the state average.
Fayette County is trying several new strategies.
“Last fall, we became the first district in Kentucky to pay for all ninth- and 10th-graders to take the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) to give all students access to Advanced Placement courses and information about college and scholarships,” Caulk said.
High school officials in Fayette County are partnering with Commerce Lexington, the chamber of commerce organization, to transform teaching and learning, and to establish smaller academies at high schools with a focus on careers.
Instead of classifying students as either college-bound or career-tracked, the district needs to change the paradigm, Caulk said.
“Everyone is on a career path. Some of those paths will require college. Others will require technical training or apprenticeships. High school is just one step toward a successful future,” he said.
Another strategy in the works is a dropout prevention and re-engagement academy. Beginning next fall, nontraditional students who aren’t on track to graduate can enter a specialized program that will “enable them to graduate ready for college, career and life,” Caulk said.
He also said he is planning the dropout prevention program and would release more details when they are available.
In Kentucky, school districts report both four-year and five-year graduation rates to the Kentucky Department of Education, and both appear on a district’s report card.
The five-year rate is based on the students who should have graduated the previous year instead. The five-year rate is used in Kentucky’s accountability system. The four-year rate is used to determine whether each Kentucky school district met its graduation rate goal. Four-year rates also are used to compare Kentucky with the rest of the nation, Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said.
Fayette County has a more favorable five-year graduation rate, 87.7 percent. But that also is below the state average of 89.7 percent. Only 14 other school districts had lower five-year graduation rates than Fayette. Thirty-six of the 168 districts with high schools had five-year graduation rates lower than the state average, according to the Herald-Leader analysis.
Caulk said Fayette students master academic content “at different paces.
“The fact that some students take longer should not be a blemish. We want students to persist; we want to encourage grit and perseverance. It’s time to stop looking at students as numbers and batches and instead look at them as individuals with talents and gifts that need to be cultivated.”
Caulk said he’s proud that dropout rates in Fayette County are at a five-year low, and 2016 graduates outpaced their peers in Kentucky and across the nation, posting higher average scores on the ACT and higher rates of college readiness.
Caulk said that nationally, four-year graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, up four percentage points since the 2010-2011 school year, when all states started using a consistent measure for students finishing high school.
The question is whether that rate has led to a substantial increase in the percentage of graduates who are better prepared when they enter college or the workplace, he said. According to business and higher education leaders, he said, improved graduation rates haven’t reconciled “a growing skills and knowledge gap.”
Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said her group hopes to see the state and districts increase their graduation rates and their college and career readiness rates every year. But Ramsey said it’s also important to look at the gap between the two; too many students are graduating who aren’t ready for college and career.
Ramsey said districts should also pay close attention and build strategies around differences among various groups of students, comparing how the graduation and career and college readiness rates for low-income students compare to higher-income students, and the differences in rates among races and ethnic groups.
Caulk said Fayette school officials aren’t just looking to improve graduation rates. They also want to make sure graduates are prepared for college and career.
He said the district intends to collect data on graduates after high school “because the true benchmark is not a high school diploma, but where that diploma takes them in life.”
State’s top 15 four-year graduation rates
1) Paris Independent - 100 percent
1) Murray Independent - 100
1) Lyon County - 100
1) Fulton County - 100
1) Cloverport Independent - 100
1) Berea Independent - 100
1) Beechwood Independent - 100
1) Barbourville Independent - 100
9) Washington County - 99.3
10) Taylor County - 98.6
11) Adair County - 98.5
12) Monroe County - 98.4
13) Paintsville Independent - 98.3
13) Campbellsville Independent - 98.3
13) Leslie County - 98.3
13) Hart County - 98.3
16) Carter County - 98.2
16) Rowan County - 98.2
State’s bottom 15 four-year graduation rates
(No. 1 has lowest percentage)
1) Russellville Independent 72.7 percent
2) Covington Independent 74.5
3) Breathitt County 75.0
4) McCreary County 79.3
5) Clay County 79.8
6) Jefferson County 80.1
7) Johnson County 82.0
8) Wolfe County 82.4
9) Morgan County 82.6
10) Caverna Independent 82.7
11) Montgomery County 82.9
12) Fayette County 83.1
13) Franklin County 83.5
14) Scott County 83.7
15) Jackson Independent 84.2
Data effective as of Sept. 29, 2016