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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.”

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