Kentucky is among the nation's leaders in closing the high school graduation gap for low-income public school students, according to a report released last week by Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center.

In fact, Kentucky's high school graduation rate is among the highest in the country, despite a poverty rate above the national average.

As a region, western Kentucky's graduation rates are even better than Kentucky's across the board.

According to the report, the state's gap between low-income and non-low-income graduates is unusually small, making Kentucky just one of six in the country that can boast a graduation rate for low-income students above the national average, now 82.3 percent.

In 2014, Kentucky's overall graduation rate was 87.5 percent, more than five points above the national average.

This rate includes 84 percent of its low-income students and 91 percent of its non-low-income students graduating on-time, a difference of 7 points.

In comparison, in 2014 Kentucky's 16 westernmost districts had an average graduation rate of 88.75 percent for its low-income students and 95.5 for other students, making for a 6.75 percentage point gap.

Four local districts had no graduation gap at all in 2014, including Fulton County, Fulton Independent, Graves County and Mayfield Independent. Only two local districts had low-income graduation rates below the state average in 2014: Paducah Independent, only two points shy at 82 percent, and Carlisle County at 70 percent.

The year 2014 was the second in a row for a zero-point gap for both Fulton County and Graves.

"We were very excited to see this report," said Carla Whitis, assistant superintendent at Graves County Schools. "We were especially excited to see that there was zero gap. We try to focus on every student and meet their needs. Our goal, of course, is 100 percent graduation for all of our kids."

Authors of the report, "For All Kids: How Kentucky is Closing the High School Graduation Gap for Low-Income Students," sought to understand and outline what led to the state's success.

They looked in depth into school districts in only three regions -- central, eastern and northern Kentucky -- leaving western Kentucky out, save for raw data included in the study's appendices. However, their key findings are applicable statewide.

First, the study pointed to the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990 as the spark that ignited the state's evident educational progress.

In 1983 superintendents of 66 of Kentucky's 173 school districts filed suit for equity in school funding, and in 1989 the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky's entire system of public education was unconstitutional based on inequitable distribution of funds, among other factors.

The resulting KERA reforms in 1990 included a rewrite of the system's finance laws, increased support for struggling districts, improved data systems, and a shift in power from local superintendents' offices to site-based-decision-making councils composed of elected parents and teachers.

The study also pointed to collaboration across sectors -- from community members to local businesses and nonprofit organizations -- and smart use of data and timely interventions as contributors to Kentucky's educational success. Also mentioned were Kentucky schools' use of federal funds for kids who need it most and widespread advanced and dual-credit curriculum opportunities.

Whitis of Graves County Schools agreed wholeheartedly with the report's findings. In Graves County, she said they follow every student from the day they enter high school, doing their best to keep them on track to graduate.

The high school has a group of teachers, counselors and administrators who meet several times a year to assess student progress. Considering Graves County High has a student body of roughly 1,400, that's no easy task.

"We look at every student to see if they're on track to graduate," Whitis said. "If they're not on track, we try to break down those barriers and come up with a plan to help them be more successful."

Fulton Independent Schools started doing something similar a few years ago and is already seeing positive effects.

"We do a 'Name and Claim,' where every teacher will stick with a student and make sure they're benchmarking where they need to to graduate and get into college," said Tamara Smith, superintendent of Fulton Independent. "That helps a lot. Anytime a kid needs help, they'll come to that teacher."

Along with the Name and Claim program, in recent years Fulton's ramped up efforts to get kids thinking about graduation and college at a young age. And they pamper them a bit, Smith said.

"We want to make them feel special," she said.

"Like this year, the principal made a senior breakfast, and we had a big dinner for students before they took their ACTs."

Both Smith and Whitis expressed their excitement at the report's findings and also determination to keep pushing for that 100 percent graduation rate.

"I know there's no silver bullet," Whitis said. "It takes many, many things to meet the needs of all of our students. Our goal will always be 100 percent."

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