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East Texas high schools' graduation rates at top of class

By Christina Lane
Dec. 1, 2012 at 11 p.m.

If you think Texas' ranking of third-highest high school graduation rate in the nation is something to crow about, look closer. East Texas schools' graduation rates are even higher than the state average.

All Gregg County schools and Hallsville ISD boasted graduation rates among the Class of 2011 that exceeded the state's average of 86 percent of all students graduating that year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Texas had the third-highest graduation rate for all students, tying with Tennessee, New Hampshire, Indiana, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Iowa, Vermont and Wisconsin exceed Texas by one to two percentage points, according to data provided by the federal department.

"The (state-mandated) test given here in Texas is a lot more rigorous than I believe it is in other states. This is a testament to the public education that students are receiving in Texas," said Kilgore ISD interim Superintendent Dennis Williams, whose high school saw 91.3 percent of its students graduate in 2011. "Sometimes when you look at the accountability system and other factors, it's hard to see the trees for the forest. There are some good things that are happening in Texas public education. This is affirmation that we are providing a good, solid education."

This is the first year that all states are using a uniform method for calculating graduation rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Texas Commissioner of Education Michael L. Williams said the results are proof that Texas educators deliver a high-quality education.

"It is good to see the positive press concerning the efforts of the Texas public school system," said White Oak Superintendent Mike Gilbert, whose district saw 97.3 percent of its students graduate in 2011. "Our schools are not failing to meet the needs of the diverse population of this state. The challenges are great, and this data shows the Texas public schools are meeting the challenge with opportunities for our students to succeed."

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows among the Class of 2011, Texas ranked No. 1 for its graduation rate among Asian and white students and tied with Montana as having the highest percentage of black students graduating that year. In 2011, 95 percent of Asian students graduated in Texas; 92 percent of white students in the state graduated; and 81 percent of black students earned a diploma.

Longview ISD has one of the most diverse student populations in the area with about 46 percent black students; 29 percent Hispanic students; 23 percent white students; and about 2 percent other races. Longview High School graduated 99.2 percent of its students in 2011.

A spokesman for the school district said LISD realizes not all students plan to attend college, so the district has put into place programs (such as Career-Technical Education) that are concentrated on vocations and job training.

Hallsville High School, which graduated all of its students in 2011, actively monitors student attendance and starts interventions as soon as a student is showing an area of weakness, counselors Carole Black and Lynn Henderson said. The campus has programs in place to identify students and offer remediation, they said.

Gladewater High School Principal Suzie Lambert said her campus monitors attendance, uses a credit recovery system to ensure students stay at the grade level with their group, provides accelerated instruction to ensure students pass the state assessments, provides individual planning for college and career choices and counsels students with excessive absences. In 2011, 93.6 percent of Gladewater's class graduated.

Sabine Superintendent Stacey Bryce reported his district offers tutorials, including a Saturday school, to ensure students pass. He said considering the high standards of accountability in the state, it did not surprise him that Texas had such a high graduation rate.

"This is not a surprise to most Texas educators," Pine Tree Superintendent T.J. Farler said, echoing Bryce's sentiment. "For a long time, we have worked to create various opportunities for our students to be successful beyond high school. The expectations for graduation have increased dramatically with the addition of the required 4x4 core courses for all students and the accountability testing.

"Texas teachers and students have more than met the challenge, and Pine Tree ISD teachers in particular have been highly innovative in finding new instructional techniques to engage the students and create meaningful learning experiences."

Pine Tree ISD, which had a 2011 completion rate of 93.4 percent, has two components to improving its graduation rate, Farler said. The first is a transitional program that focuses on ninth graders who are behind or lacking certain skills, she said. The program provides students with the opportunity to close gaps.

The second initiative is Pine Tree's ExCel High School of Choice. ExCel is a nontraditional high school for students who want to graduate early or who need accelerated instruction so they will graduate on time. ExCEL uses a combination of web-based, virtual courses via the computer and teacher-directed lessons, Farler said.

"Schools in Texas have continually raised the bar on trying to make sure every child in Texas is educated and successful," said Spring Hill Superintendent Wes Jones, whose district saw 91.3 percent of its students graduate in 2011.

Jones said while the state has made significant strides, he believes graduation rates could be even higher if there was more local control, if schools were allowed "to balance our focus between career readiness and college readiness, rather than all on college readiness," and if "we weren't required to place so much emphasis on high stakes standardized testing.

"All will agree accountability and assessment is needed, but not under the current system," Jones said.

"With some of these changes, I think you would see Texas graduation rates increase and the unemployment and crime rate decrease."



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