Nebraska’s high school graduation rate increased to 89.7 percent for the class of 2014, marking the continuation of a steady rise in the number of the state’s high school seniors who graduate.

State Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt said that reflects the work educators have put in to keep students in school, despite challenges they face.

“The bottom line: Nebraska schools don’t give up on their students,” he said.

Lincoln Public Schools’ graduation rate also showed a slight increase, with a significant jump for some minority groups and a decrease in the dropout rate that officials say signals that more students are staying in school and working toward graduation, even if they haven’t completed their studies in four years.

"The real goal is to get them to graduate," said Leslie Lukin, LPS director of assessment and evaluation. "A diploma is a diploma."

That’s happening statewide, too. While the reported 2014 graduation rate is 89.7 percent, 91.1 percent of students graduated within six years, according to the State of the Schools Report.

Graduation rates were made public Friday, although other information on the state report card -- such as reading, math, science and writing test scores -- was released earlier.

In 2014, 65 Nebraska school districts graduated 100 percent of their seniors in four years and 69 districts graduated all seniors in six years. 

Nebraska’s four-year graduation rate has increased from 86.1 percent in 2011. In 2013, it was 88.5 percent.

According to the way the state calculates, the LPS graduation rate was 83.9 percent this year, up from 83.7 percent the year before.

But by LPS calculations, the 2014 graduation rate is 87.2, up slightly from 87.1 percent last year.

The difference is who gets included. LPS determines its rate based on students who start in the district as freshmen and excludes those who transfer in from other districts or start after their freshman year.

The state includes those transfer students, using a method recommended by the National Governors Association, which is working toward a common calculation method so state rates are comparable.

LPS officials said the district will continue to calculate the graduation rate as it has for the past 20 years because it allows them to look at historical trend data.

And according to that data, the percentage of students who dropped out went from 6 percent last year to 5.1 percent this year -- down from 8.8 percent in 2011. The actual number of students who drop out is relatively small: 114 students in 2014, compared to 134 the previous year.

And the number of students who don't graduate in four years but are still attending was 7.6 percent in 2014 compared to 6.9 percent in 2013, an increase of 16 students.

Pat Hunter-Pirtle, LPS director of secondary education, said those numbers -- and reaching the district's 90 percent graduation goal by 2015-16 -- reflect efforts to help individual students who are at risk. The district has put in various support systems to try to make sure those students get the help they need. 

"You could call any of the principals and they could tell you the kids they're concerned about," he said.

Like Principal Sue Cassata at Lincoln East, whose administrators have put a special emphasis on helping kids who come to East from juvenile detention centers, group homes or treatment centers. 

That's a small number of students at East, which has the second-highest graduation rate in the district, but a group Cassata said the school wasn't doing a good job of reaching. 

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So administrators created a team to work with students coming to East from such facilities. One person interviews the student to get to know him or her better; they pick teachers whose styles will match them best; they spend a day familiarizing the student with the school before classes start; and an administrator checks in regularly.

"Some of our most important work is with these kids," she said. "We can't blindly make assumptions about kids anymore without knowing their stories and working hard to find out their stories. Even if they don't want us to."

An achievement gap still exists in the graduation rate, with the rate of minority students graduating from LPS still lagging significantly behind the 89.7 percent of white students who graduated in 2014.

Fifty percent of Native LPS students graduated, 80 percent of African-American students, 88 percent of Asian students, 76 percent of Hispanic students and 82 percent of students who identify as being two or more races.

Graduation rates within those groups can vary widely from year to year because of the small numbers involved, including just 18 Native students. In 2013, for instance, 89.5 percent of the Native students graduated, a difference of just six students compared to this year.

But there also were some big jumps that are part of a continuing increase over several years. The 76.4 percent of Hispanic students graduating in 2014, for instance, is up from 73.7 percent last year and 64.3 percent in 2011.

Although the 79.8 percent of African-American graduates in 2014 is down slightly from 81.3 percent the year before, it is up from 70.2 percent in 2011.

One of the reasons Lincoln's graduation rate is below the state's rate is because LPS is large and diverse, with a growing poverty rate and special education services that draw families to the district, Hunter-Pirtle said.

At LPS, 44 percent of students are on the free- and reduced-lunch program.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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