Graduation rate rises 3 percent in Washoe

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Graduation rate rises 3 percent in Washoe

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More students from the Washoe County School District are making it to graduation. This morning, the district announced the graduation rate was 72 percent for the Class of 2013.

More students from the Washoe County School District are making it to graduation. Tuesday morning, the district announced that 72 percent of students graduated in 2013. 

Superintendent Pedro Martinez went deep into the data as he explained the district's most recent graduation rate. But before that, there was a brief tribute to school spirit and Queen. 

In a video produced by last year's seniors, students jump and strut in front of their school logos. While many of the students were probably just reveling in senior year festivities, this celebration represented something more to the district.

"3,300 students. It's the highest number of graduates we've ever had in this school district."

That's a 3 percent gain from 2012, which may not seem like a lot, but it's more than the last 3 years combined. The success is a product of a number of programs championed by Martinez, who took over the job a little over a year ago. The district's Graduation Initiative targeted 1,000 seniors who were not on track to graduate in 2013. Through grant money, those students received after school help and Saturday classes. 800 of them ultimately got their diplomas.

Martinez says the key is starting intervention immediately when a student is lagging behind. 

"We cannot wait till the kids are in 12th grade, so this year we are putting the same interventions for 12th grade into 11th grade. And with the scorecards we do with every school now, we monitor the progress of every 9th and 10th grader, as well." 

And this will be critical because the district has set a goal of graduating 80 percent by the Class of 2015. Right now less than half of that class is on track to graduate. Still, Martinez says he's confident they'll make it there, but they'll need to make sure they're closing the achievement gap, while also raising the graduation rate.

"Every point that we gain, achievement gaps need to be closed. The math doesn't work any other way."

Because the majority of students in the Washoe School District are minorities, every group needs to improve in order for the overall rate to go up. And 2013 did see many improvements, including a five percent rise for Latino students and a 9 percent gain for African-Americans.

To reach its graduation target, the district will need to double down on intervention programs, even while funding per-pupil is about 2,000 dollars less than the national average. Hundreds of millions of new dollars were put into education during this past legislative session. Much of that went to very targeted early education programs, like making kindergarten classes smaller and supporting English Language Learners. That money won't affect graduation rates in the short term:

"But it's important."

That's State Senator Ben Kieckhefer.

"We can't lose sight of the need to focus on that long game while we are striving year after year to make sure we get out and graduate students. We don't want to fall down or leave anyone behind."

Kieckhefer says it's also important to keep the standards rigorous. Almost half of 2013's class graduated with advanced diplomas or honors, which is significantly more than the state average.

Washoe School District Trustee Estela Gutierrez says funding challenges aren't going away anytime soon, so the spending has to be smart.

"We've implemented some reform policies around education that reward schools that are doing well so that they have a little more freedom."

Gutierrez says that will be vital in the next two years as the district tries to reach or even outpace the nation in its graduation rate.