High school graduation

Kelly Walsh High School graduates stand during commencement in May 2013 in Casper, Wyo. 

Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming’s high school graduation rate climbed slightly over the past year, but the numbers varied dramatically between districts, new figures show.

During the last school year, 79.4 percent of students graduated on time, the Wyoming Department of Education announced Monday. That's a slight rise over the previous year, but the rate is almost unchanged from where it was five years ago. 

The statewide average, however, conceals a wide disparity in performances among school districts. School districts in Sheridan and Lincoln counties, for example, graduated students at rates above 90 percent. At the same time, districts on the Wind River Reservation saw graduation rates that hovered between 20 percent and 40 percent.

Wyoming's graduation rate remains below the national level, which reached a record high in 2014 at 82 percent.

The data also shows an achievement gap among Wyoming students, with some facing additional challenges to completing their high school education. Poor and homeless students received diplomas at far lower rates than their peers. Some minority groups are also struggling to reach the bar set at the state level. Only 45 percent of Native American students graduated on time in 2015.

Young women graduated at significantly higher rates than young men in Wyoming, including in low-performing districts. At Fremont County School District No. 38, figures show 40 percent of the female students graduated, compared with 20 percent of their male counterparts.

The new figures do not represent students who graduate before or after the four-year norm.

In a statement, Wyoming schools chief Jillian Balow applauded the effort of school districts to increase the number of students completing their high school education, but said the state could do better.

“Graduation is the gateway to next steps: college, career, and military,” she said. “Every student should be graduating from high school.”

In practice, increasing graduation rates for struggling groups of students requires collaboration with other agencies, like the Department of Family Services, said Brent Young, chief policy officer at the Department of Education, in a press conference Monday. Community support is also vital, he said.

The state plans to help under-performing schools by encouraging programs that have been successful in Wyoming’s most successful districts, such as Sheridan County School District No 1, Balow said.

School officials in Sheridan have made significant gains in graduation by targeting individual high school students who appear to be struggling. This district has also hired personnel dedicated to early intervention for elementary and middle school students and their families.

The district had a 91 percent graduation rate in 2015, and a smaller gap between male and female graduates. The district serves fewer minority students, English language learners and students on free and reduced lunch than other Wyoming school districts, but those demographic groups are also performing above average.

The data released Monday is fairly consistent with the 2013-2014 school year.

Students on free and reduced lunch are graduating at rates about 13 percentage points below the state average. That's a 1 percentage point rise from last year. African American and Latino students graduated at lower rates than the state average, at 68 percent and 73 percent respectively.

Some districts appear to be making gains, including the Natrona County School District, where the graduation rate is now 76.5 percent, up from 75.4 percent in 2014. The district has set a goal of 85 percent, which officials hope to reach by 2019.

Seven schools in the state have a 100 percent graduation rate, including Burlington High School in Bighorn County School District No. 1, Skyline Academy in Sublette County School District No. 1 and Meeteetse School in Park County School District No. 16. Those school all had small graduating classes.

Fremont County School District No. 21 in Fort Washakie is the state's lowest-performing district, with about a 23 percent graduation rate.

During the press conference, Balow said more spending was not the answer to improving graduation rates. However, money can be better targeted to help students with greater needs, she said.

“We really need to remember that money alone doesn’t buy an education,” she said. “We do fund education. We are committed to making sure that student have the opportunities they need to succeed and that we have the very best teachers and classrooms.”

The State Board of Education will hold a special meeting Thursday to consider revisions to Wyoming’s graduation requirements.