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See more photos from graduation season here

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.

Superintendent Diann Kitamura said the state’s new funding formula allows the district and schools more say over how they spend money, giving them freedom to launch programs tailored for individual campuses and student needs.

“(It) has allowed us to provide additional supports at schools,” Kitamura said.

Such programs are boosting the number of students who graduate, including Latinos, who comprise the second largest demographic, behind whites, among the county’s grade-school aged children.

“This increased interest in school from all demographic groups has led to an increase in our graduation rates,” Kitamura said.

Since 2009-10, Elsie Allen graduation rate for Latino students has climbed by nearly 9 percentage points to just over 71 percent.

Across the county, the graduation rate for Latino students rose by 13 percentage points over the same period to 79 percent. For white students, the rate rose by 8 percentage points to 87 percent.

“While we still have a lot of work to do to close the achievement gap, this is encouraging progress,” Herrington said.

The state analysis recorded a drop in graduation rates at Rancho Cotate, El Molino and Sonoma Valley high schools.

Last year, 93 percent of Sonoma Valley’s seniors graduated, a 5-percentage point dip from 2009-10, the state reported.

Louann Carlomagno, the district superintendent, said the decrease was caused in part by students being misidentified as “drop outs” rather than as transfers to other schools, including their alternative school. The school is now tracking those students more closely and correcting how the state classifies them, she said.

Steven Kellner, the West Sonoma County Union High superintendent, said the El Molino’s graduation rate, which dropped 3 percentage points over the six-year period, was skewed by the number of students who received special education certificates and not diplomas at the end of their schooling. He said those earning those certificates count against the school’s graduation rate.

At Rancho Cotate, the graduation rate dropped 6 percentage points, according to the state. Principal Amie Carter said the district used to transfer students who weren’t on track to graduate to its alternative school, El Camino.

“While this kept graduation rates high at RCHS, it was not always a successful experience for El Camino students,” she said in an email.

The school decided in 2013 it would best to move those students back to the Rancho campus and give them the same opportunities as their peers, including access to clubs and various elective classes. While the school saw an initial dip in its numbers, Carter said they’re starting to see the rates go up for both student populations. They’re also working on addressing freshman failure rates by rolling out various measures to ensure students are placed early on in the right classes and have access to tutoring and other services.

“The bottom line is that RCHS prides itself on the fact that if a child is not being successful we will find a way to support and connect with that child,” Carter said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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