Guess Which State Has The Best High School Graduation Rate?

Guess Which State Has The Best High School Graduation Rate?

6:57pm Jun 09, 2015
Graduation Rates.
LA Johnson / NPR
  • Graduation Rates.

    LA Johnson / NPR

  • Students sit below a bulletin board of graduation notifications at Scavo Alternative High School in Des Moines, Iowa.

    Students sit below a bulletin board of graduation notifications at Scavo Alternative High School in Des Moines, Iowa.

    Elissa Nadworny / NPR

  • Students say Scavo is no cakewalk. They feel important, cared for and empowered. And that makes them want to come back.

    Students say Scavo is no cakewalk. They feel important, cared for and empowered. And that makes them want to come back.

    Elissa Nadworny / NPR

  • Darby Payne, 17, gets a ride to school from Mary O'Hearn, a SUCCESS case manager at Scavo.

    Darby Payne, 17, gets a ride to school from Mary O'Hearn, a SUCCESS case manager at Scavo.

    Elissa Nadworny / NPR

  • A table of giveaways in the hallway outside Scavo's day care, Teddy Bear Town.

    A table of giveaways in the hallway outside Scavo's day care, Teddy Bear Town.

    Elissa Nadworny / NPR

  • A big perk at Scavo is its small classes. The teacher-to-student ratio is around 1-to-14.

    A big perk at Scavo is its small classes. The teacher-to-student ratio is around 1-to-14.

    Elissa Nadworny / NPR

  • Daryl Miller's physics class meets off-campus at the Des Moines Bike Collective, a nonprofit bicycle repair shop.

    Daryl Miller's physics class meets off-campus at the Des Moines Bike Collective, a nonprofit bicycle repair shop.

    Elissa Nadworny / NPR

  • Scavo students change a tire during physics class at the Des Moines Bike Collective.

    Scavo students change a tire during physics class at the Des Moines Bike Collective.

    Elissa Nadworny / NPR

  • Teacher Darin Henry helps Payne with a presentation before class starts.

    Teacher Darin Henry helps Payne with a presentation before class starts.

    Elissa Nadworny / NPR

The national high school graduation rate is an impressive 81 percent. So impressive, President Obama highlighted it in his State of the Union address this year: "Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high."

Sound the trumpets. This is a really big deal. There's just one problem: The president didn't explain how we got here. For the past few months, the NPR Ed Team and reporters from member stations in more than a dozen states have been digging into these numbers to find out.

The truth behind that record high graduation rate is complicated. States and school districts are using some powerful, long-term strategies to help potential dropouts stay in school. But many are also fudging their numbers and using quick fixes to make things look better than they are (more on that tomorrow).

Among the bigger surprises (to us, at least) was the state with the highest graduation rate in the nation — 90 percent.

Iowa.

A good place to view a state's sincerity on graduation rates is in its largest city, where it's easy to find students living in poverty with solo parents. The more challenges they face, the more likely they are to drop out. Many cities even lump these teens together into special schools. And this is where you find out what a state is made of. Are these schools vibrant, caring spaces or dropout factories?

Students say Scavo is no cakewalk. They feel important, cared for and empowered. And that makes them want to come back.

Students say Scavo is no cakewalk. They feel important, cared for and empowered. And that makes them want to come back.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

In Iowa, that city is Des Moines. That school is called Scavo Alternative High School. And it's Mary O'Hearn's job to find these struggling teens and get them to class.

"Some of our young people, you know, like I have to say, 'Now which house, where are you?' " O'Hearn says, driving her black Honda through a southeast Des Moines neighborhood of hard turns and dead ends.

It's a Tuesday, and she's doing what she does most mornings: picking up students who need help getting to school.

Des Moines has six public high schools. Five are traditional. Then there's Scavo, where O'Hearn is a SUCCESS case manager. SUCCESS is a program across the city's schools meant to flag kids in trouble before they drop out and connect them with an adult, like O'Hearn, and the services they need to keep up.

Scavo's graduation rate — just 47 percent — is far worse than the other high schools' rates. But it has also improved a lot, more than doubling since 2009 (when it was an abysmal 20 percent). And, to be fair, this school has always had a tough job, trying to win back former dropouts like Darby Payne.

Darby Payne, 17, gets a ride to school from Mary O'Hearn, a SUCCESS case manager at Scavo.

Darby Payne, 17, gets a ride to school from Mary O'Hearn, a SUCCESS case manager at Scavo.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

The 17-year-old emerges from the house where she spent the night and, after a warm greeting for O'Hearn, climbs into the passenger seat. She's pregnant and doesn't have a steady address or steady family helping her finish high school.

"If it wasn't for Scavo, I probably wouldn't be on the verge of graduating right now," Payne says. "You kinda have to have a lot of discipline," she adds, "to make yourself do it when you don't have those people behind you telling you, you know, 'Do it. You can do it.' "

Now O'Hearn is her cheerleader, helping Payne arrange her schedule, buy maternity clothes and get an apartment through a program for young, homeless mothers. She helps other Scavo teens, too, and they text her constantly. At one point along the way, her phone lights up. A student writes:

"Can you see if I have a warrant?"

Turns out, that's one of the few things O'Hearn can't do.

"You need food? We're gonna give you food," says Scavo's other SUCCESS case manager, Tami Cross. "You need a coat? We're gonna get you a coat. You need a place to live? We're gonna help you get a place to live. We do everything."

The Campus

Scavo High sits on the fourth floor of a newly renovated, downtown campus, surrounded by Des Moines school programs that are open to Scavo's 500 students. Principal Rich Blonigan walks us floor to floor:

Basement: a sprawling auto repair facility with multiple classrooms. Students are encouraged to work on their own cars.

First floor: a community elementary school.

A table of giveaways in the hallway outside Scavo's day care, Teddy Bear Town.

A table of giveaways in the hallway outside Scavo's day care, Teddy Bear Town.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Second floor: professional training programs in the culinary arts and nursing.

Third floor (my favorite): an FM radio station and broadcasting program, fashion design studio and marine biology lab complete with a large stingray pool and smaller fish tanks stacked floor to ceiling.

Even the fourth floor is more than just Scavo's classrooms and offices. It will soon have its own medical and dental clinics and already offers students a food bank and day care that can accept infants just 2 weeks old.

These extras help keep many students in school — but not all. That's why class time at Scavo is different, too. It's flexible. Many students have to work. So they can take classes just in the morning. Or the afternoon. Or, for those who work all day, there's late school.

A big perk at Scavo is its small classes. The teacher-to-student ratio is around 1-to-14.

A big perk at Scavo is its small classes. The teacher-to-student ratio is around 1-to-14.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Another perk is class size: small. The teacher-to-student ratio here is around 1-to-14. In Des Moines' other high schools, it's 1-to-24.

That has made all the difference for 16-year-old Shawndrea Clyce. She started at one of the city's traditional high schools but fell behind, she says, because it was just too impersonal.

"The reason I didn't go is 'cause I didn't know nobody," Clyce says. "It's a big school full of hundreds of kids, and they don't care about that one person, really. They don't have time, and they really don't get paid to just focus on one kid."

Clyce insists the only adult at her old school who clearly cared about her was her probation officer. At Scavo, she says, it's different:

"Here, they focus on you. They push you."

Clyce, like Darby Payne, doesn't live with her parents. That's why, at Scavo, teachers don't just teach. They're also advocates, checking in regularly with students they've been assigned. Darin Henry teaches social studies:

"I hate to say 'family,' but we try to create some of that in order to get to know the students. It's a smaller, intimate side of what education can be."

The classes themselves stand out, too. Henry took his government class on a field trip to the Iowa Capitol, where students debated whether it was a wise use of taxpayer dollars to paint the Capitol dome in gold leaf.

And a physics class meets off-campus — at a nonprofit bicycle repair shop called the Des Moines Bike Collective.

Daryl Miller's physics class meets off-campus at the Des Moines Bike Collective, a nonprofit bicycle repair shop.

Daryl Miller's physics class meets off-campus at the Des Moines Bike Collective, a nonprofit bicycle repair shop.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

From Behind To Ahead

There's one thing about Scavo that students love, but makes some education experts nervous. Eighteen-year-old Alicia Henry arrived at Scavo a year ago, as a sophomore, behind in credit. Now?

"I could have graduated this year," she says, "but I chose not to."

How did she do it?

"I basically finished 16 classes in a year."

That's because classes at Scavo generally take weeks, not months. Senior Brandon Shafer arrived last year after bouncing among three other traditional schools and falling way behind. But he quickly caught up:

"Biology class is one I did in four days," Shafer says while scrapping a bicycle after his physics class at the Bike Collective. "They gave me pretests. So I just passed the pretests so I didn't have to do any of the actual work."

Shafer, like many at Scavo, was trying to get credit for a class he had largely taken already.

"I had been in the class before at a prior school and got kicked out," Shafer says. "The biggest part of Scavo is pretty much showing up and just giving effort."

When asked if he thinks he's getting a good education, Shafer doesn't hesitate:

"Yeah, I mean, I've learned a lot more here than I have at any other school I've attended. I actually come to this one."

Scavo students change a tire during physics class at the Des Moines Bike Collective.

Scavo students change a tire during physics class at the Des Moines Bike Collective.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Alternative schools like Scavo are now at the center of a raging debate over how best to re-engage at-risk students like Shafer. Critics say this kind of fast-tracking is hard to do without lowering the bar.

"Many alternative schools are terrible," says Nettie Legters, who studies dropout prevention at Education Northwest.

But they're not all terrible. What's the sign of a good one? A school that is both rigorous and supportive in a way that many traditional schools can't be. Legters mentions what's known as the Check & Connect model:

"Where you connect students who have risk factors with an adult who's going to continually connect with them and check and have a relationship that's ongoing," Legters says.

Adults like Mary O'Hearn and Darin Henry.

Teacher Darin Henry helps Payne with a presentation before class starts.

Teacher Darin Henry helps Payne with a presentation before class starts.

Elissa Nadworny/NPR

As for the question of rigor, it's hard to say whether teens at Scavo are learning as much as they would at one of the city's traditional high schools. Then again, students only get to Scavo if they drop out of one of those traditional schools.

And Principal Rich Blonigan insists he has not lowered the bar — that his students have to meet the same standards and earn the same diploma as every other Des Moines high schooler.

"There is no difference," Blonigan says. "Just the name that's at the top of the diploma."

And the goal of a place like Scavo, says physics teacher Daryl Miller, isn't just to teach algebra or English.

"The way I'd put it," Miller says, "is it's more about getting kids to buy back into the whole idea of school."

Students insist Scavo's no cakewalk. It's just different, they say. They feel important here. Cared for. Empowered. And that makes them want to come back. You can see that passion and pride every time the bell rings.

Not the school bell, but a small hand bell. It's a tradition at Scavo. Since students here work at their own pace, every so often someone earns the credits to graduate.

On this day, a student named Emily walks the halls ringing the bell, surrounded by friends. Classmates and teachers clap from the doorways.

Soon, Emily will become part of Iowa's graduation rate. Best in the nation: 90 percent.

An incredibly complicated number, built of stories.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Eighty-one percent of the nation's high schoolers now graduate in four years. It sounds impressive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high.

SIEGEL: President Obama touting the number in this year's State of the Union address. Well, it turns out schools are achieving this in various ways. Some are using quick fixes and fudging their numbers while others are working hard to help potential dropouts. Today, Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team has this story from Iowa, the state with the highest graduation rate in the nation - 90 percent.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: This is where you find out what a state is made of. Go to its largest city where it's easy to find students living in poverty, many with single parents. The more challenges they face the more likely they are to drop out. And some cities even lump these at-risk teens together into special schools. Now look closely. Are these schools vibrant, caring spaces or dropout factories?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Head south on East Lacona Avenue.

TURNER: In Iowa, that city is Des Moines. That school is Scavo High, and it's Mary O'Hearn's job to find these struggling teens and get them to class.

O'HEARN: Some of our young people, you know - like, I have to say now which house? Where are you, you know?

TURNER: It's a Tuesday morning. O'Hearn insists she's not lost driving around this neighborhood of hard turns and dead ends. Finally...

O'HEARN: Yep, here we are. That is so funny. I wasn't that off then.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Arrived.

TURNER: Des Moines has six public high schools. Five are traditional. Then there's Scavo, where O'Hearn is a success case manager. Scavo's grad rate - 47 percent - is far worse than the others. But it has improved a lot - more than doubling since 2009. And this school has always had a tough job trying to re-engage students who have dropped out.

DARBY PAYNE: Hello.

TURNER: Like 17-year-old Darby Payne.

PAYNE: If it wasn't for Scavo, I probably wouldn't be on the verge of graduating right now.

TURNER: Payne sits in the front seat of O'Hearn's black Honda. She's pregnant and doesn't have a steady address or steady family helping her finish high school.

PAYNE: You kind of have to have a lot of discipline to make yourself do it when you don't have those people behind you telling you, you know, do it. You can do it. You got to do this, you know?

TURNER: Now O'Hearn is her cheerleader, helping Payne arrange her schedule and get an apartment through a program for young homeless mothers. She helps other Scavo teens, too, who text her constantly, things like this.

O'HEARN: Can you see if I have a warrant (laughter)?

TURNER: Turns out, that's one of the few things O'Hearn can't do. Here's Scavo's other success case manager, Tami Cross.

TAMI CROSS: You need food; we're going to give you food. You need a coat; we're going to get you a coat. You need a place to live; we're going to help you get a place to live. We do everything.

TURNER: Scavo High sits on the fourth floor of a newly renovated downtown campus surrounded by Des Moines school programs that are open to Scavo's 500 students. Here's a quick tour with Principal Rich Blonigan.

RICH BLONIGAN: In the basement is the automotive program. First floor is our - the downtown elementary school; second floor - culinary arts and the nursing program.

TURNER: Third floor's my favorite - career tech classrooms for radio broadcasting, fashion and...

BLONIGAN: So if I remember, I think there are stingrays in here, maybe even jellyfish in this tank.

TURNER: Marine biology - in Iowa. Even the fourth floor is more than just Scavo's classrooms and offices. It'll soon have its own medical and dental clinics and already offers students a food bank.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you need breakfast products?

TURNER: And a day care.

BLONIGAN: Welcome to Teddy Bear Town, ages 2 weeks to 3 years.

TURNER: These extras help keep many students in school, but not all, which is why class time at Scavo is flexible, too. Many students have to work, so they can take classes just in the morning or the afternoon or even later. Another perk is class size - small. I asked a bunch of current students how many people are in your math classes.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Six.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Seven.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: 10.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Eight.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Seven.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: Six.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Eight.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: 10.

TURNER: Sixteen-year-old Shawndrea Clyce started at one of the city's traditional high schools, but she fell behind, she says, because it was just too impersonal.

SHAWNDREA CLYCE: The reason I didn't go is 'cause I didn't know nobody. It's a big school filled with hundreds of kids, and they don't care about that one person really. They don't have time, and they really don't get paid to just focus on one kid.

TURNER: Clyce says the only adult at her old school who clearly cared about her was her probation officer. At Scavo, she says, it's different.

CLYCE: Here, they focus on you. They push you, like - and everything that we see here, it's to graduate.

TURNER: Clyce, like Darby Payne, doesn't live with her parents, which is why at Scavo teachers don't just teach. They're also advocates, checking in regularly with students they've been assigned. Darin Henry teaches social studies.

DARIN HENRY: I hate to say family, but we try to create some of that in order to get to know the students. It's a smaller, intimate side of what education can be.

TURNER: The classes themselves stand out, too. Daryl Miller teaches physics off-campus at a nonprofit bicycle repair shop called the Des Moines Bike Collective.

DARYL MILLER: What we're going to be doing is we're going to be adding up these vectors so they have both size and direction.

TURNER: There's one more thing about Scavo that students love, but that some education experts don't. Eighteen-year-old Alicia Henry arrived at Scavo a year ago as a sophomore behind in credit. Now...

ALICIA HENRY: I could have graduated this year, but I chose not to.

TURNER: How did she do it?

A. HENRY: I basically finished 16 classes in a year.

TURNER: That's because classes that Scavo can take weeks, not months. Senior Brandon Shafer arrived last year after bouncing between three other traditional schools and falling way behind, but he quickly caught up.

BRANDON SHAFER: Biology class is one I did in four days. They gave me pretests, so I just passed the pretests so I didn't have to do any of the actual work.

TURNER: Shafer, like many at Scavo, was trying to get credit for a class he'd already taken.

SHAFER: I had been in the class before at a prior school and got kicked out, so the biggest part of Scavo is pretty much showing up and just giving effort.

TURNER: Do you feel like you're getting a good education?

SHAFER: Yeah. I mean, I've learned a lot more here than I have at any other school I've attended. I actually come to this one.

TURNER: Critics says this kind of fast-tracking often means lowering the bar for students. And I should say it is hard to know if teens here are really learning as much. Principal Rich Blonigan says they are. They have to meet the same standards, he says, and earn the same diploma as every other Des Moines high schooler.

BLONIGAN: There is no difference, just the name that's at the top of the diploma.

TURNER: And physics teacher Daryl Miller adds the goal of a place like Scavo isn't just to teach algebra or English.

MILLER: Show up. Do what you have to do when you're supposed to do it. That's a formula that you can use throughout life.

TURNER: To some people looking in from the outside, it looks like it's just less rigorous.

MILLER: The way I'd put it is that it's more about getting kids to buy back into the whole idea of school.

TURNER: Which explains why Scavo is funded using state dropout prevention dollars. And the strategy of surrounding teens with services and caring adults while making classes smaller and more flexible - it seems to keep them coming back. Again, Scavo's more than doubled its grad rate in five years, helping to improve Iowa's best in the nation rate. Let's finish this story the way roughly half of Scavo students finish.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

TURNER: Since students here work at their own pace, every few days someone earns the credits to graduate. When they do, they're allowed to walk the hallways ringing a small handbell, surrounded by friends. On this day, it's a student named Emily. Classmates and teachers clap from doorways. Soon, she'll become part of Iowa's high school graduation rate - 90 percent - an incredibly complicated number built of stories. Cory Turner, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa.

EMILY: I say my best friends helped me so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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