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Graduation rates up as Waterloo Schools hits another high point

WATERLOO — Graduation rates at the Cedar Valley’s largest high schools have been on the rise in recent years.

And with the state this week announcing class of 2018 graduation rates, Waterloo Community Schools reached a new record. At its three high schools combined, 84.24 percent of students graduated in four years — the highest ever for the second year in a row. Cedar Falls High School hit 96.83 percent of students graduating from the class of 2018, close to its high mark for recent years.

The top rates locally were reflected at the state level. According to the Iowa Department of Education, graduation rates statewide reached an all-time high of 91.4 percent with the class of 2018.

“For the past five years, our graduation rate has been trending upward,” said Waterloo Superintendent Jane Lindaman. “We believe this is happening because of very intentional strategic work. We have a team of people that meet on a regular basis to review data — we look child by child.”

In the spring of 2014, the district had a graduation rate of 74.18 percent. A year later, the district hit an all-time high of 80.3 percent. That happened again with the class of 2017, when 84.15 percent graduated.

The upward trend is occurring in Cedar Falls, as well.

“We’ve really been pleased,” said Dan Conrad, Cedar Falls Community Schools’ director of secondary education. “Over the last several years it’s been increasing every year.”

Since the district graduated 95.2 percent of its seniors in 2015, the percentage of seniors finishing high school in four years has grown annually. In some prior years, the district had higher graduation rates, including the class of 2014. Just under 97.5 percent of seniors received a diploma that spring.

Conrad credited Cedar Falls Schools’ staff for the growing results.

“I think the work that our staff has been doing has put an emphasis on making sure our students are on track to graduate,” he said. That starts with the work they do at the junior highs talking to students about “career options, plans for a high school diploma and beyond. We want to make sure that diploma is in their pocket as part of their plan.”

The high school-wide “graduation story” initiative that got underway in Cedar Falls this year pushes students to think even further — to what their plan is after graduation. Conrad said students examine their aptitudes and passions to come up with those plans.

Cedar Falls’ graduation rate meant 336 seniors graduated last spring out of 347 students at the school who were freshmen four years earlier.

The combined class of 2018 for East, Expo and West high schools in Waterloo included 698 students who started four years earlier as freshmen. Of that total, 588 graduated last spring.

Broken down by school, East had the highest graduation rate for the class of 2018 at 96.47 percent followed by West with 93.32 percent. Expo Alternative Learning Center, which enrolls students from both high school attendance areas, had a graduation rate of 44.2 percent.

Lindaman cited “the range of options we have at the high school” as helping to engage students and keep them from dropping out. Those range from the International Baccalaureate program, where students can earn an advanced diploma, to hands-on technical courses they can enroll in at the Waterloo Career Center.

“We know that if students can be engaged beyond their sophomore year, we have a better chance of keeping them engaged for the duration of their high school career,” she said.

The majority of other public high schools across the Cedar Valley saw an increase in their graduation rate, and many were near or above the state average. Denver and Dike-New Hartford high schools saw 100 percent of their seniors graduate last spring, which were percentage increases of 1.79 and 3.95, respectively, from the previous year. Waverly-Shell Rock High School’s graduation rate was up 1 percentage point to 90.24 percent and Hudson High School’s rate of 97.73 percent increased by a percentage of 3.44.

Janesville High School also had a 100 percent graduation rate, which was unchanged from the year before. Other area high schools saw a drop in the percentage of students who graduated. Dunkerton was down 4.57 percentage points to 92.31 percent, Independence dropped 0.95 to 93.69 percent, Jesup dropped 3.13 to 90.2 percent and Union was down 5.79 to 90.36 percent.

Iowa’s five-year graduation rate — which reflects students who took an extra year to finish high school — was 93.3 percent for the class of 2017, down slightly from 93.4 percent for the class of 2016.

Lindaman said Waterloo Schools’ five-year graduation rate for the class of 2017 shows a significant number of its students needed that extra year to finish.

“Our five-year graduation rate is nearly 88 percent,” she noted. “That also is at its highest rate.”

Cedar Valley mental health website going live

WATERLOO — A new information clearinghouse is available for those seeking help with mental health care in the Cedar Valley.

A coalition of nonprofit organizations and service providers is launching a new website Wednesday to help people navigate what can be a complex subject during often difficult times.

Carole Gustafson, director of Cedar Valley’s Promise, said the idea for the site called Cedar Valley Mental Health Connections was hatched more than a year ago through discussions among groups working to address the area’s mental health care needs.

“It kept coming up in our discussion: If we just had a one-stop place that people could go to get information,” Gustafson said.

The website at was developed by Cedar Valley’s Promise, the University of Northern Iowa’s psychology and social work departments, UnityPoint Health/Black Hawk-Grundy Mental Health Center and the Black Hawk County 1st Five Program.

The Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa provided grant funding for the web development costs.

A key feature is a list of providers in the area that details the type of services provided, credentials and hours. Individuals seeking providers can also search by typing in their city or zip code.

“If you are a consumer in the community and you go to the phone book, it gives you a whole list of therapists or counselors,” Gustafson said. “But it doesn’t break it down (among specialties) so it makes it really difficult.

“When you’re dealing with a mental health crisis, whether it’s for yourself or a family member, you don’t have time to call 10 different practitioners trying to find somebody to help you,” she added.

UNI graduate students are tasked with periodically making sure the information is up to date, but service providers seeking to have their information added to the list are asked to make contact through the website.

The website also provides educational information, including a glossary of terms, conditions and medications for individuals and their family members. Providers can find information about upcoming training sessions or seminars related to their fields.

“We don’t provide any services,” Gustafson said. “The information is provided on the site freely; we don’t charge anyone for the information.”

While the site provides information about crisis services and the national suicide prevention hotline, Gustafson said it is not designed as the entry point for a person in need of emergency help.

“This is a tool to get you started,” she said. “But if you are in full-out crisis you need to go to the hospital.”

Gravel roads a wet, muddy mess; 2 parks closed to flooding

WATERLOO — Rain and melting snow have turned rural roads into a mushy, muddy mess.

County secondary roads departments across Northeast Iowa are urging heavy equipment to stay off of gravel roads while all motorists should use caution during the softened conditions.

“This isn’t scientific, but we think they’re the worst they’ve been in 25 years,” said Black Hawk County Engineer Cathy Nicholas. “With the high amounts of rainfall last fall and then the snow, there’s all kinds of water in the subgrade and they are very soft.”

Black Hawk County shut down Airline Highway between Raymond and Canfield roads after reports numerous cars were stuck in the mud. Early Thursday, a truck got stuck on a gravel road south of Hudson, leaving eight-inch ruts after it was pulled out.

Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Herbst said deputies have been responding to a number of vehicles stuck in the mud.

“The conditions of the gravel roads are horrible and in some cases treacherous,” Herbst said.

He was cautioning motorists not to drive through areas where water had gone over rural roads because it’s possible the roadway is undermined below the surface.

Bremer, Grundy and Buchanan counties’ secondary roads departments were asking heavy equipment and large vehicles to avoid gravel roads until conditions improve.

“Grundy County asks the public to minimize travel on the gravel roads, especially with large vehicles,” Grundy County officials said. “Gravel roads are turning softer by the hour with warmer temperatures and rain.

“Eight inches of raw material over two feet of frost equates to eight-inch ruts,” they added. “These will only get deeper until the frost and moisture leave the roadway.”

Many school districts, including Waterloo Community Schools, were running buses on paved routes only.

Nicholas said the problem could persist well into next week.

“We’re trying to keep our motor graders and dump trucks off the roads,” she said. “We’re hoping for warming and a dry period over the weekend to firm up the roads so we maybe can get the graders out Tuesday or Wednesday.”

It could be the end of next week before trucks are able to get loads of rock where needed on the gravel roads, she added.

“We’re going to need a lot of rock,” said Nicholas, noting the county budgets $1 million annually for the material. “It’s too early in the year to say we’re going to go over that.”

Frost boils and soft gravel roads weren’t the only issue for area road systems. Rain and melting snow has led many local streams to overtop the travel lanes.

There were 22 reported road closures throughout Black Hawk County as of Thursday afternoon.

George Wyth State Park closed Thursday due to flooding, “and could be closed for several days,” according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website Wednesday. Black Hawk County also announced that Black Hawk Park in Cedar Falls was closed Thursday due to flooding.

Flood warnings and a wind advisory are in effect for Black Hawk, Bremer, Butler, Franklin, Grundy, Hardin, Marshall and Tama counties until 10:30 p.m. Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

A flood watch was in effect for Allamakee, Chickasaw, Fayette, Floyd, Howard, Mitchell and Winneshiek counties until 7 a.m. Friday, according to the NWS.

Rain changing to snow Thursday evening and strong winds were expected, though travel was not expected to be impacted.

River flooding was expected to continue through the weekend due to “excessive runoff from recent rainfall and snow melt,” according to the NWS.

A specific flood warning was in effect for the Black Hawk Creek at Hudson for moderate flooding, the Cedar River at Cedar Falls for moderate flooding, the Cedar River at Waterloo for minor flooding, and the Turkey River at Spillville for major flooding.

A specific flood watch was in effect for the Shell Rock River at Shell Rock for minor flooding, and Beaver Creek at New Hartford for minor flooding.

The county was making sandbags available at the following locations: 501 N. Cedar St., La Porte City; 329 Longfellow St., Waterloo, until 3 p.m.; Washington Street south of Winslow Road, Finchford; and at the BP gas station in Washburn.

Amie Rivers contributed to this story.

Unconscious driver pulled from submerged road in Traer

TRAER — Traer firefighters rescued an unconscious motorist who was trapped after water from melting snow overtook his vehicle.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long the man, whose identity wasn’t available, and the vehicle were in the water on Ridge Road northwest of Traer, but Fire Chief Tyler Sell said it appeared he had been there awhile.

“It appears he was driving, and either the vehicle became disabled or there was just too much water on the road,” Sell said. The vehicle “appeared to be mostly on the roadway but it was all covered in water, and the water had risen through the night. I’m not sure what the level was last night, but it was quite a bit higher this morning.”

The man’s condition hasn’t been released.

On Thursday morning, a passerby spotted the vehicle on the flooded roadway, which the county had closed earlier because of deteriorating road conditions. After using an endloader to approach the vehicle, crews determined it was occupied.

“We used our ice rescue suits, cold water suits, and three of our personnel went out and retrieved the individual from the vehicle,” Sell said.

He said the water was moving and came from swollen Wolf Creek nearby.