Jackson County’s two biggest public high schools saw their graduation rates drop in 2017, while the two smallest had gains and the county’s two private high schools graduated 100 percent of their students.

Even with the decreases at Seymour High School and Brownstown Central High School, all schools in the county remained above the state average of 87.2 percent, according to data released earlier this month by the Indiana Department of Education.

Overall, the state fell nearly 2 percentage points from the 2016 graduation rate of 89.1 percent.

Mirroring the trend

Seymour mirrored the state trend, also dropping 2 percentage points from 93.9 percent of students graduating in 2016 to 91.9 percent in 2017. The school has seen a general decline in its graduation rate since 2014 when 96.5 percent of students graduated.

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Principal Greg Prange said he was pleased the school was still above the state average but not so happy the rate went down.

“This is something I follow very closely,” he said.

Of the 304 students who were in the Seymour Class of 2017 cohort, 279 students graduated. That left 25 students who did not receive their diploma. Of those 25, Prange said there were four students who turned 18 and left school to work, take care of children or handle other family situations that were beyond their control.

Another 12 were special education students who received certificates of completion, not diplomas.

“I don’t blame those kids because they did everything right,” Prange said. “They did everything they had to do, but they still count against us because that’s what the state says.”

By not including those students with special circumstances, Seymour would have had only nine students not graduate in 2017 instead of 25, he said.

Another issue Prange believes likely had an impact on the 2017 rate was a change in personnel at the Jackson County Learning Center. That’s where the school’s alternative education program is housed and where many students go to catch up on credits in order to graduate.

“We had a teacher leave there to go teach at the middle school, so we didn’t have the stability there that we were used to,” he said. “We’ve got that taken care of now.”

He said he believes the 2018 graduation rate will go up as a result of the staff now in place at the learning center.

“We can’t afford for it to drop again,” he said of the rate.

Seymour has maintained a graduation rate of 90 percent or better since 2010.

“Our counselors work hard with families and with the kids for four years, and our teachers go above and beyond to help students,” Prange said. “We know that we have a successful high school, and I think the community does, too. We are doing so many great things, and we educate everyone. We don’t turn anyone away.”

Prange also made changes that require all students to complete a minimum of 40 credits before they are allowed to participate in commencement. In the past, students could walk in commencement with 38 credits.

With just four months until the end of the school year, Prange said he planned to check the cohort numbers again and make sure seniors are on track to graduate.

“It’s time to step it up,” he said.

Still above their goal

Brownstown Central High School Principal Joe Sheffer said the school’s improvement goal is to maintain a graduation rate of 90 percent or higher, which it has done since 2011.

In 2017, Brownstown had a 92.2 percent graduation rate, which was a 5 percent drop from 2016 but still above their goal.

“I am pleased that we have met our goal once again,” Sheffer said. “Our small percentage drop is due to a few students who could not meet the requirements to graduate.”

The biggest factor, he said, was testing.

“We had more students last year that did not pass the ECA graduation exam and did not receive waivers to graduate,” he said.

In order to get more students to graduate with a Core 40 diploma, Sheffer said a three-trimester Algebra II course will be added next school year.

Before the beginning of the current school year, the Indiana Department of Education announced that students earning a general diploma instead of Core 40 would not count for future graduation rate calculations, a change many school officials fear will make their graduation rates plummet.

“We are making the appropriate curriculum changes to eliminate the general diploma at BCHS, but it will not happen in one year,” Sheffer said.

Graduation rates are not just important to the school but to the community, as well, Sheffer added.

“Our goal is for all students to graduate,” he said. “The more students that are attending school and graduating, the better it is for the community and for future employers.”

‘It’s certainly a team effort’

Trinity Lutheran High School Principal Ben Stellwagen said academic excellence is a tradition at Trinity, which has graduated 100 percent of its students since 2012.

Sandy Creek Christian Academy, formerly Seymour Christian Academy, also graduated 100 percent of its 11 seniors in 2017. In previous years, the school had less than 10 seniors, so the rate was not made public.

“We are very proud of the hard work our students put in to be successful academically and are thankful to the teachers and staff for helping motivate them to excel,” Stellwagen said.

But it’s not just students and teachers who make a difference, he added.

“Our families are very involved, too, demonstrating that they are highly invested in their students’ growth,” he said. “It’s certainly a team effort.”

To help keep students focused and on the right path to graduation, Trinity relies on its guidance counselor and full-time resource and special education coordinator.

Although a school’s graduation rate is important, Stellwagen said what’s more important at Trinity is designing an education program that meets the unique needs of each individual student.

“We run weekly reports to identify students struggling in particular subjects or classes and to be sure to get them the help and encouragement needed to make improvements,” he said.

The school also is using STAR curriculum to address students’ educational needs based on their grade level. Freshmen start out taking a skills course to transition into high school, sophomores and juniors take a math and language lab in order to score better on college entrance exams and seniors work on college and scholarship applications, career exploration and participate in a group-building and leadership retreat.

Sometimes, an extra little incentive is enough to push a student, Stellwagen said.

“We have begun recognizing and celebrating the efforts of students who were able to increase their GPA significantly from one quarter to the next,” he said. “It’s another small but meaningful incentive to do well and keep at their studies.”

Not the finish line

With a 96.7 graduation rate in 2017, Crothersville High School had the highest rate of public high schools in the county. The school increased its rate by nearly 7 percent from 90 percent in 2016.

Principal Adam Robinson said knowing the school is doing that much good work for the kids in Crothersville is inspiring.

“We also know this isn’t a finish line,” he said. “We are not done and will never be done.”

He doesn’t know exactly what led to the increase because if he did, he would imitate it again this year, he said.

“We have a great staff here at Crothersville Community Schools, and when you combine that with great kids, you usually end up with something special,” he said.

But unfortunately, education isn’t the same across the board because there are so many factors that influence a student throughout their school years, he added.

“I wish there was one thing we could implement that would create a perfectly equitable education for all students,” he said. “However, until that magic spell is created, we will continue to do whatever we can to help the students here at Crothersville become future leaders and productive citizens. The more equipped we can make the students under our care, the greater we all become.”

Setting the bar high

In 2017, Medora High School had 15 of its 16 seniors, or 93.8 percent, graduate.

Principal Austin Absher has set a goal for all of this year’s 21 seniors to graduate in the spring. That goal is a part of the school’s improvement plan that Absher recently announced.

She said 2014 marked the last time the school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

By the numbers

Graduation rates for high schools in Jackson County

School;2017;2016;2015;2014;2013;2012;2011;2010

Brownstown Central;92.2;97.2;96.3;93.8;95.8;95.8;91.8;89.9

Crothersville;96.7;90;84;86;80;80;85.3;72.3

Medora;93.8;92.9;95.2;100;100;87.5;78.9;70

Seymour;91.9;93.9;95.1;96.5;96.1;91.7;94;90

Trinity Lutheran;100;100;100;100;100;100;100;94.6;95.7

Sandy Creek;100;(past years’ rates are not public because the school had less than 10 seniors)

State;87.2;89.1;88.9;89.8;88.6;88.4;87.1;85.9

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January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.