Kory Kath Grad 2021

Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath welcomes the large crowd gathered on the OHS football field Sunday afternoon. The 2021 graduation ceremony was held outside, instead of in the gym this year. (Ashley Rezachek/southernminn.com)

Area schools saw their graduation rates remain steady or increase slightly, according to the 2020 graduation data released by the state Thursday.

The Owatonna school district's graduation rate remained steady while the Faribault school district's graduation rate increased in 2020.

Statewide, Minnesota's high school graduation rate held steady for the class of 2020, despite an abrupt shift toward the end of its senior year as early stages of the pandemic shuttered school buildings across the state.

Data released Thursday from state education officials show that 83.8% of students graduated from high school within four years in 2020, a historic high for Minnesota.

Minnesota schools improved their graduation rates for all students in 2020, except Black students and English language learners. The rates went up most dramatically for Native American students, who saw a gain of almost 5 percentage points, and students receiving special education services, who saw a bump of 2 percentage points, according to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

Still, Minnesota schools have not managed to shake their nearly worst-in-the-nation education inequalities.

Only about 7 out of 10 Black and Latino students graduated on time last year, and the graduation rate for Native American students was 55.7%. Minnesota high schools were successful graduating Black students at a rate of only 69.2%, down from 69.9% in 2019, according to MDE.

English language learners (EL) in Minnesota graduated at a rate of just over 66%. That was down a full percentage point from 2019.

Owatonna sees some gains

The 2020 overall Owatonna Public School four-year graduation rate remained the same as 2019 at 84.2%, according to MDE. Overall it has stayed relatively consistent through the prior years. In 2016 the overall rate was 85.7% before going to 89.1% in 2017 and 83.3% in 2018. The latest three years of Owatonna data are consistent with the statewide percentages, although slightly higher.

Owatonna High School's graduation rate was 90.4%.

Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad called attention to the fact that despite the year including the start of a pandemic, 2020 graduation rates for the Owatonna Public Schools were sustained.

“It still meant we were connecting with students,” he said, adding that the district is always working to further increase that rate.

Elstad pointed to other areas in which the district has been making gains, including increases within the last year to the graduation rates for Black, Hispanic and English learner students. Graduation rates for Black students was at 92.6% and the rate for Hispanic students was at 65.1%, a 12.6% and 2.6% increase from 2019 respectively. Graduation rates for Owatonna EL students bumped from 57.1% in 2019 to 72.7% in 2020.

White students' graduation rate decreased slightly from 88.2% to 87.1%. A look at the trend data reveals graduation rates have remained relatively consistent for white students over the last few years.

“We do have some bright spots, but we do have some work to do,” Elstad said.

Elstad also pointed out the difference between seven- and four-year graduation rates and said students in special education who have individualized education plan can take up to the age of 21 to graduate. The district’s overall seven-year graduation rate for 2020 was 92.2%, up from the previous year’s 88.6%.

He said he believes if the school district continues to invest in its Career Pathways program, it will be beneficial for student success.

The Owatonna Area Learning Center’s four-year graduation rate increased from 20.6% in 2019 to 27.8% in 2020.

Faribault sees improvements in graduation rates

The Faribault school district saw progress all around in its 2020 graduation rates.

The school district's overall four-year graduation rate was 76.4%, according to MDE.

Faribault High School’s four-year graduation rate increased from 73% in 2019 to 80.5% in 2020, according to MDE.

“It’s great to see that hard work by our students and our teachers is paying off,” said FHS Principal Jamie Bente. “We’re going in the right direction.”

In the last couple years, Bente said the district’s focus has shifted to looking at students as individuals and addressing their specific needs as they plan for life after high school. He expects pieces like the seven-period day, which was implemented at the high school in fall 2020, and college to career Pathways programs to also improve the graduation rate and help students graduate sooner.

In a district with a large population of EL students, the Faribault High School four-year graduation numbers are historically lower than other area schools. Bente explained that, for many students, it simply takes them longer to acquire the English skills they need in order to graduate. Many of them do graduate after five, six or seven years, he said.

But even among EL students who graduated in four years, the rate increased from 16% in 2019 to 32.5% in 2020. The seven-year graduation rate for EL students also increased from 65% in 2019 to 70% in 2020. For all students at FHS, the seven-year graduation rate was 89% in both 2019 and 2020.

In 2020, 32.5% of EL students continued pursuing their high school diplomas after four years, a decrease from 35% in 2019. The dropout rate among EL students increased from 19% to 30% between 2019 and 2020.

In breaking down demographics by ethnicity, Hispanic/Latino students saw an increased graduation rate from 62.5% in 2019 to 68% in 2020. Black/African American students’ graduation rate increased from 38% to 57.5%. For white students, the graduation rate increased from 88% in 2019 to 92% in 2020.

The Faribault Area Learning Center’s four-year graduation rate also increased from 47% in 2019 to 56% in 2020.

Minnesota Public Radio News contributed to this report.

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