by ALEXANDRA RETTER
From 2019 to 2020, Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) four-year graduation rate at Winona Senior High School (WSHS) and the Winona Area Learning Center (WALC) decreased by about 1 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively, according to recently released data from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). Data for this year is not yet available.
Statewide, the graduation rate was 83.8 percent, which represented a 0.1 percent decrease from 2019. WAPS’ district-wide rate, 78.5, was below this statewide rate.
The rate at WSHS decreased from 87.1 percent to 86.2 percent, representing the third straight year with a decrease. The rate was 95.1 percent in 2016; 95.3 percent in 2017; and 91.9 percent in 2018.
The rate at the WALC decreased very slightly from 18 percent to 17.9 percent. The rate was 16.2 percent in 2016; 28.8 percent in 2017; and 13.2 percent in 2018.
“We are pleased that in the face of tremendous adversity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, so many of our students in the Class of 2020 were able to graduate on time,” WAPS Superintendent Dr. Annette K. Freiheit said in a press release. “That speaks to the resilience and determination of these students, their families, our educators and our community. However, this data also speaks to the work that remains ahead of us. We are committed as a team to improving the educational environment to better prepare our students for college, career and life.”
The graduation rate for students who are Black rose from 42.9 percent to 60 percent. The rate was 40 percent in 2017 and 50 percent in 2018. Data from 2017 through 2019 is not available from MDE regarding graduation rates for students who are Hispanic or Latino; however, the 2020 graduation rate for students who are Hispanic or Latino was 72.7 percent. In comparison, the graduation rate for white students was 81.5 percent.
The graduation rate for students in the special education program increased from 54.9 percent to 63.9 percent. In 2016, the rate was 74.5 percent; in 2017, it was 59.2 percent; and in 2018, it was 71.1 percent.
School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said of the district-wide graduation rate, “In spite of COVID, I’m very pleased. I think the district has made some good efforts, and that’s evidenced by an increase.” She cited the district’s efforts with its World’s Best Workforce (WBWF) plan, an academic accountability plan school districts are required to submit to the state annually. “We’re not there yet, but I like it that we made some gains,” she said. She said she feels the WALC rate will “always be dependent on the students that are there” and added that she is proud of the work WALC staff are doing. “They’ve made some major changes in their structure and leadership.” As for WSHS’s rate, Denzer said that in light of the situation in the U.S. with COVID in spring 2020, “I feel like we did very well, considering the obstacles that were in our way.”
School Board member Jim Schul said in an email that he found the graduation rates to be “generally positive.” “However, I do not read great detail into this because it is from a year ago,” he said. Like Denzer, he cited WAPS’ WBWF plan as work the district is completing to address student achievement, including graduation rates. He also cited the district’s participation in a three-year study of how welcoming it is for underserved students and staff members, efforts to review curriculum, study of student support services such as counseling and social work and work to restructure committees. “This work takes time to yield results. I am more interested in a longitudinal data set on graduation rates as opposed to merely looking at one year at a time, particularly when it is a year in the past,” he said.
As the district works to improve graduation rates, Denzer said she thinks it would be valuable to continue analyzing curriculum so students can access the classes they want to take when they need them. “I think the teachers and the students are doing a wonderful job of adjusting and being flexible, and dealing with whatever comes before them. But our goal is always to make improvements along the way,” Denzer stated. She said she would also like the district to continue its work with its WBWF plan.
Schul said a challenging part of improving graduation rates is figuring out their cause and working to address it. “Some of the cause may come within the school, but many times that cause is external to the school such as issues that relate with home and employment,” he said.