- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s high school graduation rate continued its push up toward the national average in the 2014-2015 school year.

While the rate at which students graduate high school in four years is still below the national average of 82 percent, that number has increased since 2011, according to the State Department of Education.

School districts showed a statewide four-year graduation rate of 78.4 percent for the 2014-2015 school year - up from 74.5 percent in the 2013-2014, officials said. The four-percent increase is the largest since 2011.

The dropout rate also decreased by about one percent from the 2013-2014 school year, down to 12.8 percent.

But the graduation rate among students with disabilities remains one of the lowest in the nation even after a five-percent increase to 27.5 percent for the 2014-2015 school year. The highest graduation rate among students with disabilities in the 2014-2015 school year was 63.6 percent. More than half of school districts had graduation rates lower than 40 percent.

Associate State Superintendent Jean Massey said that what determines a district’s graduation rate varies between school districts across the state because of several factors that include location, community support and administrative leadership. Increases are generally a result of schools’ focus on attendance and targeting students at risk of dropping out with a wide range of special services, she said.

Lundy Brantley, superintendent of Union Public Schools in Newton County, said that emphasis needs to start as soon as students enter elementary school.

“There are a lot of indicators in those early years of students that might be at risk of dropping out,” he said. “We try to identify those students early on and make sure they have the resources they need.”

The relatively small school district, which enrolls about 1,300 students district wide and about 250 students at its high school, had a graduation rate of 84.8 percent. Brantley said Union schools try to offer a range of services including curriculum that matches students’ college and career interests and flexible scheduling to give students time to catch up.

“If you’ve got kids who are behind on a subject, you might want to double block a class,” he said. “You have to be creative.”

Pascagoula-Gautier School District officials call students’ parents or visit their homes to encourage them to take advantage of counseling and tutoring, Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich said. The district’s two high schools had a total graduation rate of 81.2 percent, which was a two percent increase from the previous year, Rodolfich said.

“Parents are always receptive to their child receiving help and I think it means a lot to them,” he said.

Ronnie McGehee is superintendent of Madison County Schools in Flora, the 5th largest school district in the state. He said the district, which had a graduation rate of 88.9 percent, prioritized literacy and built student-mentor relationships that emphasized education.

“We need to help students understand we’re in a knowledge-based economy,” he said. “You’re no longer able to make a strong living with a strong back and a weak mind.”

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This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Newton County from Newtown County.

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