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Graduate to success
Virginia schools see improving high school graduation rates overall, but problem areas are found when the numbers are broken down.

Date published: 10/20/2011

WHEN IS 1 percent huge? When it describes an increase in high school graduation rates in Virginia compared with a year ago.

Maybe you've heard the statistic before. The unemployment rate is at 9.1 percent, which is about what it is for high school graduates. But for those without a high school diploma, the number jumps to 14.2 percent.

So while politicians in Washington and Richmond talk about whose plan is going to create more jobs and stimulate the economy, one popular answer might be none of the above. Truth is, the more young people who earn a diploma, the lower unemployment will be.

And that's because, as many employers will tell you, they've got openings--they just can't find people with the right skills to fill them. The figure released last week--a statewide graduation rate of 86.6 percent--suggests we're headed in the right direction and reminds us how closely education is related to future success. Another bit of good news is that the statewide high school dropout rate was also down a point between 2010 and '11, because they aren't about to graduate if they aren't in class.

But graduation rates are just like grades: There's always room for improvement. That is revealed when you look at the figures both from individual localities and when they are broken down by minority group. As The Free Lance-Star reported last week, many area localities' graduation rates exceeded the state average, while several others came in below it.

Spotsylvania County, for example, was about 2 percentage points below the state average, at 84.5. And that reflected a drop of nearly 4 percentage points from a year ago, by far the most significant decline among area schools. New Spotsylvania Superintendent Shelley K. Redinger saw the numbers coming, and points out that students' preparation going into high school is key to seeing them through it.

It's worthwhile to note that Fredericksburg was also a bit under the state average, but the rate was 3.4 percentage points higher than a year ago. Even more notable is that Colonial Beach, sitting at a miserable 69.4 percent a year ago, leaped above the state average in 2011 to 87.8 percent.

It's helpful that the state Department of Education breaks down the numbers in various ways, letting districts see exactly whom they need to target for improvement. Pretty much across the board in area localities, boys, blacks, Hispanics, and students who are economically disadvantaged tend to bring the numbers down.

Though there are instances where gaps between those groups and the higher achievers are closing, the challenge for education officials remains how to motivate the lower-achieving groups and keep them in school. It's the best way to give those students a chance at a brighter future.

And remember those unemployment numbers? Add a college degree to the mix and the jobless rate could drop as low as 4.2 percent. To get there, though, the kids will need that high school diploma first.