KANKAKEE — Nearly all local school districts have seen increases in their graduation rates over the past five years, reflecting a national trend.
Perhaps most striking is the jump in the rates at Kankakee and St. Anne Community high schools, according to the Illinois State Report Card website. Both have large numbers of students from low-income families.
In 2014, 74 percent of students at Kankakee High graduated within four years. That number rose to 92 percent in 2018. Nearly 60 percent of students are low-income.
At St. Anne, 87 percent of students graduated in 2018, a jump from 73 percent five years earlier. More than 80 percent of students are low-income.
Momence also has seen success. Its graduation rate rose to 87 percent in 2017, up from 74 percent four years earlier. It dipped to 79 percent in 2018. But with only about 320 students in the school, a few students can dramatically alter the rate. Nearly two-thirds of students at Momence are low-income.
|St. Anne High||73%||87%|
Schools with fewer low-income students have even better graduation rates. In 2018, Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School's rate was 94 percent, up from 88 percent five years earlier. BBCHS, the biggest school in Kankakee and Iroquois counties, has a 43 percent low-income rate.
With about a third of its student body low-income, Manteno High also has done well, seeing its rate increase to 97 percent, an increase from 88 percent five years before.
The only area school with a graduation rate decline was Cissna Park High School, falling to 88 percent in 2018, from 97 percent five years before. The entire school, though, has only about 100 students, so just one student can have a big effect on the rate. In 2015, the rate was 100 percent.
Experts find graduation rates more credible these days. Eight years ago, the U.S. Department of Education standardized the way the numbers are calculated.
"I think we can trust graduation data by and large," said Monika Kincheloe, a senior director with America's Promise Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit that focuses on education issues. "The national graduation rate has increased at the same time rigor in the classrooms has been increasing. It's tougher to graduate than it was 10 years and a lot tougher to graduate than 20 years ago."
In Kankakee, schools Superintendent Genevra Walters said when she took the helm five years ago, a local economic development group was concerned about the low graduation rate at Kankakee High and two other area high schools.
"What the economic engine of the county was basically saying was that the future of our local economy depends on the quality of education," Walters said in an interview. "I grew up in Kankakee. I go to church here. I will be here until I pass away. I know the potential of families here. There is no excuse to have a low graduation rate."
One of the keys to the rise in the rate, she said, was the creation of a freshman academy, which predated her hiring but which has been enhanced in the last five years.
The academy's four employees — an administrator, a guidance counselor, a social worker and a secretary — are entirely focused on freshmen. Most of the freshmen teachers only teach that grade level, Walters said.
The academy team, she said, makes sure freshmen have career goals and are exposed to post-graduation opportunities.
Kankakee is not alone among districts that give special attention to freshmen. That focus is because data show that if freshmen miss school a lot, their chances of graduating plummet.
The Kankakee school district starts discussing possible fields with students when they're in kindergarten and asking them about their career interests in sixth grade, Walters said.
'INCREASE OUR ODDS'
Charles Stegall, superintendent of St. Anne High School, said the school has gone through an "intense improvement process" over the last several years, which includes a push for better attendance.
"We have a big emphasis on rigor in our classrooms," he said. "Another emphasis is career and college readiness. Our big emphasis was going to college, but not all kids are going to college. Some are going into the workforce or trade school. We send a large number of students to the (Kankakee Area Career Center). They go into the trades and make a good income."
Momence High School Principal Matt Graham said his district, too, is focusing on freshmen. But he said the school also tries to catch seniors sooner so they do not take an extra year to graduate.
"If we catch them earlier, we can increase our odds," Graham said. "We want to get our graduation rate into the 90s."