New data show Omaha Public Schools still placing near the bottom of the state in high school graduation rates, but district officials point to steady gains and a high ranking among comparable Midwest urban districts.
In 2013, 77.8 percent of OPS high schoolers graduated within four years, up from 75.5 percent last year and 72.9 percent in 2011.
Although rising faster than the state as a whole, OPS' rate still ranked third from the bottom, according to data released Friday by the Nebraska Department of Education.
Only Minatare and Omaha Nation public schools were lower, at 56.5 and 48.2, respectively.
But Superintendent Mark Evans said the district's growth shows more promise than the raw numbers alone.
The graduation rate gap between white, black and Hispanic students is narrowing, and the rate at which low-income students graduate on time is up slightly, too. More than 70 percent of OPS students qualify for federal lunch subsidies, well above the state average.
“To me, it's really about growth,” Evans said. “Some might say there are other districts in the area that might have a higher graduation rate than OPS, but if you're looking at graduation rate growth, you're going to find we're near the top, and that's the big thing we're looking at.”
The graduation rate for black students in OPS was 75.2, up 10 percentage points since 2011. The Hispanic rate is 73.6, up nearly five points.
(See how your school performed in the State of the Schools report: http://reportcard.education.ne.gov/.)
All but one of OPS' seven high schools tallied gains, with Bryan High's rate down a fraction of a point. Northwest High rebounded after a big drop in 2012, while South High's rate continues its recent climb, increasing nearly 11 percentage points in two years, to 72.5 percent.
Compared to other Midwest high schools of similar size and demographics belonging to the Council of Great City Schools, OPS's 2012 graduation rate ranked third, Evans said, edging out districts like Wichita, Denver, St. Paul and Milwaukee. A comparison for 2013 is not yet available.
Among the reasons OPS officials credited for the improvement:
» Increased programming and participation with community groups targeting potential dropouts.
» New truancy programs and increased early interventions for struggling learners.
» The district's new action plan and improvement plans drafted for each school.
“The credit goes to building staff — principals, teachers, counselors — who have dedicated themselves to reaching out and teaching every child,” said ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment.
She also credited organizations such as the Urban League and Building Bright Futures for identifying at-risk kids and helping keep them in school.
High school test scores still show a disconnect between how many OPS students are receiving a diploma and how many score proficient in core areas like math and reading.
Last year, just 31 percent of 11th graders showed proficiency on the state math test.
“We don't have that proficiency where it needs to be,” Evans said. “That's the target for the future, but it is growing.”
Statewide, nearly nine in 10 Nebraska public high school students graduated on time last school year. The overall state rate hit 88.5 percent, up from 87.6 percent in 2012.
Rates for white, black, Hispanic and poor students all edged upward.
The statewide rate is approaching the 90 percent goal under an initiative unveiled by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman in 2009.
“I'm pleased with what we're seeing,” said Scott Swisher, deputy commissioner of education. “We're moving in the right direction.”
Seventy of the state's 249 districts, including Gretna and Fort Calhoun, graduated 98 percent or more of their students.
Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley said his district has sustained a high graduation rate by making student success “non-negotiable.”
Kids usually fail because of absenteeism, falling behind on their work or having no direct personal connection with school, he said.
“I think that we work very hard to make sure those things don't happen,” he said.
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Note: Citing federal privacy law, the Nebraska Department of Education did not reveal which districts obtained a rate of 100 percent. The department ranked all districts with a rate of 98 percent or better as No. 1.
Source: Nebraska Department of Education