Jacob Griffin can spend a half-hour talking about the challenges any of his graduating seniors have been through in order to get their diplomas.
“I can’t quantify that, but that does something to their confidence when they are the only graduate in their family, ever,” said Griffin, the principal of Independence High School, an alternative high school in Provo.
The district has had a lot more caps and gowns in its crowds over the last three years as it has raised its graduation rate by more than 12 percentage points, according to information from the Utah State Board of Education.
In 2017, 77.2% of students in the Provo School District graduated. By 2019, that had increased to 89.8%.
In the same time period, Provo High School saw graduation rates increase from 88.7% to 95.7%, Independence High School’s graduation rates increased from 50% to 66.7% and Timpview High School’s rates increased from 91.7% to 92.1%.
The district attributes the jump in graduation rates to placing a spotlight on the issue.
“Our singular focus around the last three to four years has been on graduation,” said Todd McKee, the assistant superintendent over secondary education for the Provo City School District.
In that time, the district created a graduation committee, looked at cleaning up its data so that students who had transferred out of the district and graduated elsewhere weren’t counted as non-graduates, worked on summer school programs and created a fall graduation ceremony to incentivize students who are unable to receive a diploma in May.
If a student’s records indicate that they won’t graduate in May, McKee said the high schools work with them to let them know there are still options for graduation.
“Kids need hope,” McKee said.
The district has hired additional counselors and social workers at high schools to help aid in graduation efforts. It is also funding social-emotional learning efforts and looking into adjusting its grading systems.
McKee said the district is aiming to reach a 95% graduation rate.
Boyd McAffee, the principal of Provo High School, said increasing the graduation rates at the school has been a team effort.
“Our teachers have committed themselves and they’ve done phenomenal work in showing proficiency in their courses,” he said.
McAffee said that work has included understanding that students learn at different speeds and giving students the chance to show they have learned the material — even if it’s beyond the end of a term. Counselors also identify students who need help to graduate and conduct home visits.
For McAffee, helping teens graduate is about helping students’ futures.
“It is probably the single most important thing at this stage in their life, so to see more of those kids have those doors of opportunity open, it’s overwhelming,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”
The Provo City School District has shifted the conversation around its alternative high school in recent years, instead rebranding it as an option for students to be a part of a smaller learning environment. The school, which once had graduation rates in the 40% range, has moved to a later start time, started requiring an application to attend and attempted to change the culture around it so that attending isn’t perceived as a punishment.
“The attitude within the first six months of a student being here is huge in defining their success overall, and if they can be positive, they’ll have more success,” Griffin said.
He attributes the school’s continual rise in graduation rates to the school’s new culture, and anticipates that the district’s new focus on having graduation emphasized in elementary schools will also improve rates.
“Overall, culturally, I think that is a big help,” Griffin said.
The school received additional counselors and social workers to help students. It has also had increased communication with Provo and Timpview high schools when students transfer in order to know more about the students.
Even if the students don’t pursue college, Griffin said a high school diploma can help them secure a job or receive a promotion.
He said students can do credit recovery through packets, but that the school is focused on helping get students back into traditional classes.
“We feel like that is really successful in helping kids learn, and not just the credit, but that the credit means something,” he said.