Low-income, minority and bilingual students graduating at high rates in Franklin Pierce

After a stinging wake-up call on its high school graduation rates, a high-poverty district south of Tacoma focused attention on difficult kids. Now their rates at better than the state average for all students.

High-school graduation rates are widely understood as a measure of success. Numbers in the 90-percent range suggest a district that propels young people toward promise; sagging rates suggest a future of underemployment, poverty and worse.

So 10 years ago, when Bob Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University coined the term “drop-out factory” to describe the 1,700 American high schools where 40 percent of freshmen failed to graduate, it cut deep.

Washington High, in the Franklin Pierce School District south of Tacoma, was on the list. Only 57 percent of ninth-graders there walked across the graduation stage in four years.

But since that icy wake-up call, educators in the 8,000-student district have attacked this pattern, and last June they posted graduation rates that bested the state average in every category — including for poor students, minorities and English-learners.

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Ninety-three percent of black students in the high-poverty district graduate on time, compared with a statewide rate of 71 percent. And Latino students cross the threshold at rates 20 points higher than the statewide average of 72 percent.

“The turning point was in 2009 when our high schools were listed as dropout factories,” said district Superintendent Frank Hewins. “It stung.”

The deeper significance of these figures is their context. At the same time that…

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