Commissioner: Grad rates hit all-time highs

Chad Frey
The Kansan

When discussion of graduation rates for Kansas High Schools became the focus during a meeting at the Meridian Center Aug. 31, Dr. Randy Watson, the education commissioner for the state of Kansas, started getting fired up. 

Dr. Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education, made a stop on his "Kansas Can Success Tour" at the Meridian Center in Newton on Aug. 31.

He had a story to tell that he believes has not been getting told the past few years. 

"Since Kansas has become a state, no greater percent of students have graduated [than now]," Watson said.  "... I think that is pretty impressive. We are going to take a look at the work still left to do."

The state has not hit a 95 percent target set by the Kansas Board of Education about six years ago — and while no state has hit 95 percent, Kansas is still behind a few states.

That, last factoid, however, is not one Watson is overly concerned with.  

 "You can compare yourself to Colorado or New Mexico, but what does that matter when it is your kid," Watson asked. "... We have a lot of work to do, and that is why you ar here. How do we turn this thing so that every kid can find their successful path"

Dr. Randy Watson, the education commissioner for the state of Kansas, made a stop in Newton on Tuesday morning — the 39th stop out 50 such stops he and his deputy commissioner are making this year. 

The tour is a "listening tour," similar to a tour the pair undertook a few years ago to find out what Kansans expected of the public educational system in the state. 

That first tour, which was followed up by a tour targeted specifically at businesses, led to what KSDE called its "moonshot" — setting the goal that Kansas would lead the world in education. 

"They thought if Kansas can not lead the world in these indicators, then no one can," Watson said. "We can still be really, really good in the U.S. — and we are. But we don’t care if we are good if it is your child that is [not successful]."

That first tour, and the goals that were crafted after, led to school redesign projects. Districts across the state, including Newton, began to rethink how education is delivered. 

Employers were telling KSDE the most lacked skill from high school and two-year college graduates was professionalism and work ethic. That appeared third on the list for four year college grads, at 93.8 percent. 

At the time academic success was being measured through standardized testing — specifically a reading/language skills test and math test. 

"It was clear to us as a state we were completely out of value with what Kansans valued," said Dr. Brad Neuenswander, deputy commissioner. “.. .They did not say [students] lacked the knowledge, they lacked the problem solving skills.” 

KSDE made a commitment to see more school conselors who take on a student coaching role,  a more student/individual based education and reinforcement of the importance of community involvement. 

During polling of the Newton crowd, those efforts were rated as pretty important  to the future — an average rating 4.3 on a 5 point scale. The most common scoring was a five. 

Those in attendance Tuesday also ranked the "soft skills," or non-academic skills as important to success — a 4.3 on a 5 point scale. 

Some indicators, like graduation rate, are showing that the state's commitment to changing educational delivery is working. 

In six years, the graduation rate for all students has increased by 2.6 percent, growing to 88.3 percent. That is the highest percentage in the history of the state. 

Among English Language Learners, the graduation rate has increased by 6.5 percent to 83.7 percent. For students in poverty the bump is 3.7 percent to 81.2 percent. 

For students with disablities, the graduation rate has grown by 3.1 percent, up to 80.3 percent. That rate puts Kansas second in the nation for students with disabilities. 

"I think that is just awesome," Watson said. 

About 100 people — community members, students, school staff, school adminstrators and business owners — attended a  "Kansas Can Success Tour" at the Meridian Center in Newton on Aug. 31.

Watson said there is still work to be done. 

"There are 12 percent of kids that have not graduated. That is what keeps me up at night," Watson said. "... That is why we have [Career and Technical Education] and programs like JAG-K …  To reach the kid that we have not reached we have not reached yet. To reach all of the kids. ... We have to accelerate this."