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By Genevieve Postlethwait, Paducah Sun

In a state that now ranks in the top 10 nationally for its high school graduation rate, the vast majority of western Kentucky schools are outperforming their peers when it comes to graduating students on time.

Kentucky's graduation rate of 87.5 percent for the 2013-14 school year ranks ninth in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. The national rate is 82.3 percent, marking the fourth straight year the U.S. high school graduation rate has improved.

Locally, graduation rates for 2013-14 ranged from 100 percent of students at Hickman and Fulton County high schools to 82.1 percent at Carlisle County High School, just 0.2 percentage points shy of the national average.

These numbers are a point of pride for many local schools, but schools also view them as a challenge.

"We're excited to see the growth but at the same time, until we have 100 percent of our kids graduating, we won't be satisfied," said Donald Shively, superintendent of Paducah Public Schools. Paducah Tilghman saw the second-largest graduation rate gain in the Purchase, with 88.8 percent of its students graduating in the 2013-14 school year, compared with 81.8 percent the year before.

To account for the progress, Shively pointed to Tilghman's focus on customizing the educational experience for each student's needs, while also intervening early and often when a student shows signs of struggle. He also mentioned the importance of wraparound services that help support students' social and emotional needs, like the school's separate academic, career and behavioral health counselors and the Tornado Alley Youth Services Center.

"We're really trying to leverage every resource that we can to help make sure kids are successful, to meet those unmet needs they have when they walk through those doors," Shively said. "You can't design things to hope you hit most students. You have to worry about every single child and their success. It's exciting. It's also a tremendous challenge."

Similar to Tilghman, Fulton High School has been using early interventions and more individualized, "intentional" strategies in recent years to improve student outcomes. It seems to be working wonders.

Fulton High in the independent school district saw the greatest year-over-year improvement in its graduation rate, up from 80.6 in 2012-13 to 96.7 percent in 2013-14. Its college- and career-readiness numbers made parallel gains, jumping from 56.7 percent to 72.4 percent, well above the state average of 62.5. In just three years, the high school went from being classified by the state as a consistently underperforming, "Needs Improvement" school to a "Distinguished/Progressing School of Distinction."

"Everything we do with our students is more intentional now," said Superintendent Tamara Smith. "We just feel like we're on fire."

Three years ago the district made major changes to its intervention strategies and college-going culture. For example, every day all Fulton High students attend a half-hour class where they can get help with math and reading. For the purpose of the class, students are put in "tiers" based on the level of academic intervention needed, even the high-performing students.

Smith said they also started what they call "Name and Claim." If students doesn't meet benchmarks on state testing or the ACT, their names are shared with teachers who will then "claim" them and work with them one-on-one after school until they catch up.

For students who do meet college-readiness benchmarks, the school encourages enrollment in free dual-credit courses. If Fulton High juniors meet their benchmarks and start taking the dual-credit classes, they can earn as many as 24 college credit hours before graduating high school.

"It makes college less intimidating, and if they already have credit hours, they're more likely to continue on," Smith said.

The school has dedicated a large bulletin board in its lobby for displaying seniors' pictures along with their colleges of choice as they get acceptance letters throughout the year. It's something the kids get excited about now, Smith said.

"We're excited about these changes, and I think they've made a lot of difference," Smith said. "This year, I don't think we've had any dropouts at all."

Since 2010 most high schools across the country have been using a new, common metric to measure graduation rates to promote greater accountability, reduce dropouts and increase graduates nationwide. This measure is calculated by dividing the number of graduates in a given year by the number of students who enrolled four years earlier and adjusted to reflect things like student transfers.

Article reprinted with permission of  The Paducah Sun

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