Graduation rates are on the rise throughout the state, and several area school districts are in the same boat.

More Minnesota seniors than ever before graduated in 2018, the Minnesota Department of Education reported, with nearly 56,000 students-83.2% of seniors overall-achieving the honor and attaining the state's highest four-year graduation rate on record.

But while the numbers are higher than ever, growth is still desired. Under the 2015 U.S. Department of Education's Every Student Succeeds Act, Minnesota set the goal of a 90% four-year graduation rate by 2020, with no single student group below 85%.

"We recognize that the goal we set for 2020 was ambitious, and it must be," Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker stated in a news release. "One Minnesota includes a commitment to support all our students to graduate."

Pequot Lakes

In the lakes area, many graduation rates top the state average, with the Pequot Lakes School District leading the way at 96.2%, a fairly steady rate over the last five years and it shows a 3.6% increase from 2017.

"It's a number that we're exceptionally proud of," said Pequot Lakes Superintendent Chris Lindholm during a phone interview Friday, April 26, noting the district's graduation rate has hovered in the 90% range for many years.

With a graduating class in the low 100s for the past five years, Lindholm noted just one student can often account for almost one percentage point.

"We're fluctuating by three or four kids a year," he said. "And I would expect that pattern will continue."

While the overall numbers are good news, perhaps even better news for Lindholm is the 92% graduation rate among students qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program, a population he said the district monitors closely.

"We're really proud of that," he added.

Pillager

Not far behind is the Pillager School District, with a 2018 graduation rate of 93.2%, up more than 4% from 2017 and the highest seen in the last five years.

"It's really good to see the rates increasing," Pillager Superintendent Mike Malmberg wrote in an email Thursday. "I credit schools and educational professionals for their hard work and dedication."

Another credit, from Malmberg's point of view, is the recent movement toward more career technical education classes.

"Vocational programs in our schools have also given students another reason to become more involved and also more interested in staying in school and getting their degree," he said.

As a testament to the importance of vocational studies as Malmberg sees it, Pillager's $14 million referendum planned for next month includes additional space for woodworking, metals, auto and culinary arts classes.

Brainerd

With a more than 5% increase over the previous year, the Brainerd School District saw 85.3% of its seniors graduate after four years in 2018.

While that number exceeds both the statewide rate and the district's targeted 84% under the 2018-19 continuous improvement plan, it could still be higher, according to Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning in the district.

"We're pleased with it," Murtha said Friday. "But no, we're not satisfied. We want every single child to graduate."

With more than 90% of seniors at Brainerd High School graduating in four years, Murtha noted that number is difficult to improve upon.

"It gets hard the closer you get to 100%, but that's a challenge we would prefer to have than being at 60%," he said. "So we welcome the challenge and we're excited for the opportunity to do that."

Aside from the high school, Brainerd's graduation rate also includes students from the Brainerd Learning Center and the Lincoln Education Center.

The district's 2018-19 continuous improvement plan, presented to school board members in November, identified staff attitudes and technology as two tactics that would help the Brainerd School District reach its desired goals, including improved graduation rates.

The plan states: "All staff must collectively own students. Systems and structures must align with district strategic plan and reflect the use of best practices."

The plan goes on to read: "The use of instructional technology allows students more ways to demonstrate mastery of learning targets and standards."

The district's ultimate goal, Murtha concluded, is for every student to be educated to state standards and to graduate as productive, employable members of society.

Crosby-Ironton

Just above the state average at 84.1% is the Crosby-Ironton School District, showing a decrease from 90% in 2017.

The district's transient population and students who qualify for special education services, Superintendent Jamie Skjeveland said, are among the biggest areas of concern regarding graduation rates, as the district's percentage rises to over 90% when those populations are discluded.

"Nonetheless, we take this information very seriously," Skjeveland wrote in an email Thursday, explaining the C-I district's focus remains on the World's Best Workforce requirements set forth by the state.

"We have purposeful action plans in place that address school readiness, reading by third grade, closing the achievement gap, career and college readiness, and of course, taking every step possible to ensure that every student graduates," he added.

More statewide data

Along with overall numbers, MDE data shows 2018 statewide graduation rates increased for all racial/ethnic student groups, as well as for English learners, students receiving special education services and students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Over the past five years, black students saw the largest increase at 7.2%.

Graduation rates for other populations during the same time period increased as follows:

• American Indian/Alaskan Native students, 2.8%.

• Asian students, 4.2%.

• Hispanic students, 3.6%.

• Students identifying as two or more races, 3%.

• White students, 1.9%.

• Special education students, 4%.

• English learners, 2.5%.

• Students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, 3.5%.

Theses changes represent a nearly 15% decrease in the graduation gap between white and nonwhite students since 2014.

"I am proud that the graduation gap is closing, but I am not satisfied," Commissioner Ricker stated in a news release. "As we move forward, I am eager to partner with communities across our state to better support all of our students."

Data on the MDE's online report card shows overall graduation rates, but because of the size of local school districts, it does not include racial/ethnic breakdowns.

In the area of free and reduced lunch, however, all four districts-Pequot Lakes, Pillager, Brainerd and Crosby-Ironton-recorded 2018 graduation rates above the state average. Likewise, Pillager, Brainerd and C-I came in above the 2018 state average for special education students. Pequot Lakes has too small of a special education population for the MDE to report statistics.

Graduation rates and other achievement data for Minnesota school districts is available at " target="_blank">rc.education.state.mn.us/#mySchool.