The graduating class of 2012 at Santa Monica High School. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District graduated more seniors than most schools in California in 2011.

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s class of 2011 exceeded national expectations with its high graduation rate, beating the statewide average by over 10 percent.

According to a report released Wednesday, 87.8 percent of students who started a high school program in 2007 left the district with a diploma compared to 76.3 percent statewide.

The rate also represented a nearly 4 percent increase in the district’s graduation rate from the 2009-10 school year. Graduation rates at the state level improved by 1.5 percent over the same time period.

Although many factors contribute to the district’s success, the continuing commitment to summer programs is a big factor, said Maureen Bradford, director of education services at the district.

“That is so important, otherwise kids are going to give up and they will drop out,” Bradford said. “We’re fortunate that the school district has been able to support them when other schools across the state have eliminated them because of cost.”

Nearly every subcategory of students in the district showed a greater percentage graduating in 2011 than the year before, with the exception of students of one or more races, which fell 5.5 percent.

Graduation rates amongst African American students showed the largest increase, with approximately 10 percent gains between the two school years.

Statewide, schools saw improvement in similar categories, if not as dramatic as in SMMUSD.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson called the public schools “one of the most effective job and anti-poverty programs ever conceived.”

“These numbers are a testament to the hard work of teachers and administrators, of parents and, most of all, of the students themselves,” Torlakson said.

The improved graduation rates also met and surpassed standards included in the No Child Left Behind Act, a piece of federal legislation passed under the Bush administration that requires schools to hit certain academic benchmarks or face severe consequences.

SMMUSD had to show a graduation rate of 84.3 percent this year to meet its “adequate yearly progress,” a moving target that goes up each year. By 2018, the law requires 90 percent of a cohort — those that start together freshman year — to get a diploma.

Eventually that goes to 100 percent, which Bradford hopes legislators will eventually decide is “unrealistic.”

In the meantime, schools that do not meet current standards face damaging sanctions, including less flexibility to meet the yearly progress requirements in other areas.

To meet the adequate yearly progress, or AYP, schools have to show that 95 percent of their students take standardized tests and that those students get certain scores.

There’s also a provision called “safe harbor” which allows schools to show progress from year to year rather than meet hard-and-fast benchmarks.

If a district doesn’t make its graduation requirements, however, it can no longer rely on “safe harbor” to help it through the other progress goals.

“It’s to drive home the importance of the graduation rate, putting that into the accountability piece,” Bradford said. “If your kids are not finishing high school, that’s not OK.”

There are ways to lift graduation rates that have nothing to do with improving education, however.

Each year, a certain number of students leave the district, either to go to other schools or even leave the state. If the district cannot prove that the student actually enrolled in a new district, that child is counted against the graduation rate as a dropout.

Part of the improved graduation rate between 2010 and 2011 had to do with the district getting better at tracking down those students, Bradford said, particularly at Santa Monica High School where there are more of them.

“In 2010, there were almost 100 kids who were on the list called ‘lost transfers,’” she said.

Despite the good news, there are still areas for improvement at SMMUSD. The biggest discrepancy in graduation numbers was between the genders.

Even when broken down by ethnic groups, female students far outpaced their male counterparts in graduating from high school in every category.

It represents a challenge to the district to make learning more engaging to male students, Bradford said.

Officials hope to accomplish that with a new initiative called “Linked Learning” that teaches skills as it imparts school lessons.

“It’s really helping kids know why their learning is important and how it will serve them in the future,” Bradford said.

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