The improvement began about a decade ago, after a shakeup in how graduation rates were calculated.
At the time, the state calculated graduation rates only on the percentage of 12th grade students who graduated. That gave school districts inflated graduation rates, said Terry Edwards, chief academic officer for the Everett Public Schools.
What got lost in that math, he said, was the number of students who started ninth grade but dropped out along the way.
That all changed in the fall of 2001. The Manhattan Institute, which issues reports on the economy, crime and education, published a bombshell report. It said schools must "account for all those kids who disappear," Edwards said.
Counting all dropouts, Washington's true graduation rates were closer to 60 percent, the report said, rather than the high 80s and 90s.
"That started a firestorm in the state," Edwards said.
One of the problems was there weren't systems in place to track individual students all the way through high school.
That's not as easy as it might sound. "The reality is kids move a tremendous amount," he said. "Keeping track of where they go is really a problem."
Some kids, in fact, do drop out. Some just move to another school district.
So the state began a system to monitor how many kids drop out, how many graduate and how many take more than the traditional four years to earn their diploma -- so called extended graduation rates.
Eight years ago, The Everett School District began a program to improve their graduation rates. Every Tuesday, representatives from throughout the school district meet to help ensure the district keeps its focus on helping students to graduate.
"We work really hard at getting (students) to graduate on time," Edwards said. "We work even harder on those kids who don't have all their credits done by the end of their senior year."
Some who don't have enough credits can get their diploma by enrolling in summer school. Some go back to school in the fall to finish up.
"The most important thing to us is that kids graduate," Edwards said. "We've had kids graduate who are 21 years old."
Lists are made of all dropouts. The district's "success coordinators" try to find out what happened to them.
Some students move and are enrolled in another school district. But until that can be confirmed, they're listed as dropouts.
Work on dropout prevention begins while students are in the 9th grade.
Students who may be passing most classes but have failed in one class are noted as those who may need some extra help.
Lists of students who are at risk of not passing enough classes to graduate are developed.
Individual plans are drawn up with the goal of helping them graduate.
Over the years, Everett's "on time" graduation rate has increased from 62 percent in 2004-05 to 81.6 percent for the 2009-10 school year, Edwards said.
When the students who graduated, but took longer than four years to graduate are counted, that percentage increases to 88.2 percent.
The Everett School District's success at improving graduation rates has received national attention, winning a national honorable mention "Magna Award" from the National School Boards Association earlier this year.
Other school districts have used Everett's program as a model for improving their own graduation rates.
Two years ago, Granite Falls school district employees met with their Everett counterparts to learn how to improve their graduation rates.
Student Assistant Teams were organized to give struggling students the help they need.
The first year, the needle didn't budge much. "We worked hard and didn't get the results," said Eric Cahan, principal at Granite Falls High School.
But the second year, things began to change. On-time graduation rates jumped from 63.7 percent in the 2008-09 school year to 92.9 percent in the 2009-10 school year.
"We got our tracking down, our student placement and intervention models down and started nailing it," Cahan said.
- Need to Know: Graduation rates at Snohomish County high schools 5/24/12
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