As graduation season comes to an end, the 150 students from Healdsburg High School and Marce Becerra Academy expected to receive diplomas Friday in a joint ceremony won’t be the only ones celebrating. Sonoma County also has a reason to do so, with high school graduation rates on the rise.
Countywide, the rate increased by 8 percentage points over the past six years, to a new high of nearly 83 percent in 2014-15, topping the statewide average of 82 percent, according to the latest data from the California Department of Education.
While some county schools saw dips in their graduation rates, the vast majority made gains. Elsie Allen and Windsor high schools saw among the largest increases, with respective rises of 7.4 and 9.6 percentage points. Elsie Allen’s graduation rate is now 73 percent and Windsor’s is 97 percent.
Analy High School, a perennial leader among the county’s largest public schools, stayed atop the field with a rate of 98 percent last year.
County Superintendent Steve Herrington credited the work of teachers and school officials as a main driver in the improvement, while also acknowledging the help of programs such as 10,000 Degrees, which helps low-income students access and succeed in college.
“I am thrilled to see that our commitment to increasing the high school graduation rate and college-going rate for local students has paid off. We are definitely moving in the right direction,” he said in a recent statement.
Graduation rates are a key gauge of accountability and performance for schools. In the era of campus choice, along with test scores, they can also be an influential factor for parents deciding where to send their children.
Educators said the countywide improvement reflects a coordinated push, starting in grade school, to emphasize college readiness, a signature campaign involving the state and federal education systems. Six years ago, President Barack Obama called for a redesign of primary and secondary schooling to propel students beyond high school and into college and careers.
At Elsie Allen, a redoubled effort launched five years ago in partnership with nearby Lawrence Cook Middle School and Sonoma State University is paying off, school officials said.
Starting in seventh grade, Cook students are introduced to the high school and university, and once at Elsie, they take part in workshops on how to get into college and succeed, said Mary Gail Stablein, the Elsie Allen principal. Students who meet the program’s criteria are guaranteed a spot at SSU.
“We’re really growing a culture of college-going expectations on our campus,” Stablein said. “Kids are getting out and looking at more schools and colleges. They’ve traveled all over the state.”
For its analysis of graduation rates, the state looked at groups of students who started high school together and graduated four years later.
Last year’s decision by state lawmakers to suspend the high school exit exams could have boosted graduated rates, according to State Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s office. However, officials pointed out that rates have been increasing every year since 2010. Exit exams were first required for the class of 2006.
Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, saw its graduation rates climb from 75 percent in 2009-10 to more than 82 percent last year.