Payson High’S Graduation Rate Rises 15 Percent

Four-year gain cuts dropout rate to below the state average

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Payson High School’s four-year graduation rate has risen sharply since 2006 — from 71 percent to about 82 percent, according to a recent report to the school board.

The sharp rise reflected a 15 percent improvement in one of the district’s most worrisome benchmarks — boosting the district’s performance from below the state average to a little bit above.

Reducing the dropout rate “has been a district focus,” said High School Principal Kathe Ketchem.

She said programs to flag students who have been struggling and provide extra help for students who falter have whittled away at the dropout rate. Several additional programs instituted recently could reduce the rate further in years to come, she suggested.

“We review a student’s progress towards graduation on a semester basis. When we see students that are behind, we adjust their schedule. This is critical data, it helps classroom teachers see what areas they should focus on.”

Despite the improvement, the daunting number of students who don’t complete high school remains a major concern. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that high school graduates made 32 percent more money on average than high school dropouts — which works out to an extra $8,000 a year for the rest of their lives. The unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma currently stands at nearly 17 percent, compared to a rate of less than 5 percent for people with a college degree.

The district based the rate on the number of 9th-graders who graduated from the district within four years.

It didn’t include students who transferred to another school district before graduating. It also didn’t include students who repeated a year before graduating, got a GED or graduated after completing missing, make-up classes the following summer. Typically, those students are included in calculations of a five-year graduation rate, which often boosts overall rates by 1-4 percent.

The numbers are based on the June graduation rates and so generally reflect the impact of policies instituted by the previous administration at the high school, before layoffs resulted in a change in almost all the top positions.

The recent rise in graduation rates in Payson represents a welcome turn-around, since earlier in the decade the district’s graduation rate fell sharply from a high of 89 percent in 2002, according to a study posted on the state department of education’s Web site.

A welter of sometimes-discordant statistics and studies suggests that the dropout rate for Payson schools dropped sharply a decade ago, but has made a slow improvement in recent years.

Numbers posted on the Web sites of both the U.S. Department of Education and the Arizona Department of Education suggest that Payson has made heartening progress as compared to both state and national schools.

A national study in 2009 found that in the past decade the nation’s high school graduation rate rose from 66 percent to 71 percent. The study documented a big gap between urban and suburban schools. The graduation rate in districts in the nation’s 50 largest cities stood at 53 percent, compared to 71 percent in suburban schools.

The state posts graduation rates for every district in the state on its Web site. Those graduation rates now play a key role in the effort to measure school performance, which can also affect the flow of federal funds under the rules of the No Child Left Behind reforms.

The most recent numbers on the state Web site put Payson’s graduation rate at 73 percent in 2009. The statistics presented to the Payson School Board last week put the 2009 graduation rate for the high school at 77 percent. That discrepancy might reflect the impact of the much lower graduation rates for the district’s alternative high school.

Nonetheless, the 2009 figures compiled by the state offer the best way to compare Payson’s dropout rate with other schools in Arizona.

The state figures also show telling differences in rates between various groups.

For instance, the state figures showed that girls posted a 78 percent graduation rate — compared to 68 percent for boys. Most schools report a gap between males and females, but Payson’s came in at nearly twice the average.

Payson also reported a dismaying 48 percent graduation rate among the small number of Hispanic students, as reported in the 2009 state data. That dropout rate looked bad even when compared to the 69 percent graduation rate among “economically disadvantaged” students and the 70 percent graduation rate among students with disabilities.

Payson fell somewhere in the middle of the pack statewide in the 2009 state data. For instance, the district’s overall 73 percent graduation rate compared to 84 percent in the Globe Unified School District, 65 percent in the reservation-based San Carlos school district, 74 percent in Safford, 81 percent in Flagstaff, 81 percent in Page, 78 percent in Mesa and 89 percent in Scottsdale, 86 percent in Show Low, 85 percent in Blue Ridge, 83 percent in Tucson, 83 percent in Superior, 77 percent in Prescott, and 94 percent in Sedona.

The 2009 numbers suggest that Payson’s graduation rate put it a little behind other, comparable rural school districts.

Even with the striking improvements in the past three years, the district remains a little bit behind the rate in similar communities like Show Low, Blue Ridge, Flagstaff and Sedona — but perhaps better than Prescott, Superior and Safford.

Despite the gains, Payson’s graduation rate remains well below the 2002 high of 89 percent, according to a study of state graduation rates by the Arizona Department of Education posted on its Web site.

That study put the Payson High School four-year dropout rate at 89 percent and the rate at the alternative school, Payson Center for Success, at 40 percent. Curiously, the state reported the same number for Payson High’s four-year and five-year graduation rate.

Most of the graduation rate figures for individual school districts reported in that 2002 study had fallen significantly when compared to the 2009 figures posted on the state department of education Web site.

But the analysis of the 2002 graduation rates highlighted many of the same trends — a striking difference between boys and girls and between white and minority students.

The report tracked the progress of 56,000 students and put the four-year graduation rate at 73 percent, much lower than Payson’s 89 percent at that time. The report put the five-year graduation rate in 2002 at 76 percent. About 1.3 percent of the students ended up earning their high school diploma by taking the GED (high school equivalency) test.

In that study, girls had a five-year graduation rate of 79 percent compared to a graduation rate of 74 percent for boys. Native Americans had a 66 percent rate and Hispanics a 63 percent rate — compared to 83 percent for whites and 89 percent for Asians.

The gap between boys and girls showed up in every group, including a 6 percent difference among whites, a 5 percent spread among Native Americans and an 8 percent gap between the sexes among Hispanics.

Overall in 2002, Hispanics accounted for 29 percent of the state’s students, Native Americans for 7 percent, whites for 57 percent, African Americans for 5 percent and Asians for 2 percent.

The report noted that Gila County had among the worst graduation rates in the state — behind only Pinal and Yavapai Counties. The report put the county’s four-year graduation rate at 66 percent and its five-year rate at 68 percent.

The county’s dismal performance in that report reflected rates in the southern half of the county, including Globe’s 70 percent, Miami’s 71 percent and San Carlos’ dismal 39 percent. By 2009, Globe and San Carlos had risen significantly, but Payson fell before making its big gain this year.

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