Current standard suggests a much higher rate of success.
More than 2,000 freshmen started high school in the Minneapolis School District this week, beginning their journey toward graduation in the Class of 2015.
Half of them won't make it, if the current trend holds steady.
The district's on-time graduation rate may appear to be 73 percent, but that is based on a formula that allows students six years or more to graduate.
Looking at the number of students who make it from freshmen to seniors in four years, the graduation rate was a much lower 49 percent for the Class of 2010. Graduation rates for 2011 are not yet available because summer graduates have not yet been tallied. The 24-point gap highlights the difference between the current formula and a new calculation that will become the statewide graduation measuring stick next year. The new one, to be displayed on the state's 2012 school report cards, follows students from the start of their freshmen year, tracking them by student identification numbers.
The four-year figure "gives a more accurate picture, but there should be alarm with either rate," said Camilla Lehr, coordinator of the Dropout Prevention, Retention and Graduation Initiative at the Minnesota Department of Education.
Among Minnesota's 330 school districts, Minneapolis' four-year rate is in the bottom 10 percent for the class of 2010, along with Brooklyn Center, Red Lake, Richfield and Cass Lake-Bena.
Blame for the district's poor graduation rate can't rest solely at the feet of high school staff, Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said.
"I'm not satisfied; no superintendent would be," Johnson said in an interview this month. "But they are getting students that are not prepared for high school."
Some districts will struggle
Under the new standard, developed with the National Governors Association, districts with large numbers of poor and mobile students could see their graduation rates plummet because of the difficulty in tracking them.
The four-year rate also will penalize systems with large numbers of students learning English, because they often take longer to graduate as they grapple with a new language, said Dave Heistad, director of research, evaluation and assessment for the Minneapolis schools.
"Our graduation rates are a celebration of retaining kids and giving them a shot at college," Heistad said.
The current calculation, in place for much of the past decade, conceals the dropout rate in many urban districts, said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development for Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust.
In Minneapolis, a district where non-white students are the majority, two of five black and Hispanic students who entered high school in 2006 walked away with a diploma in 2010. For American Indian students, the rate was 17.4 percent.
"Are they adequately prepared? Are we doing enough?" asked Elaine Salinas, executive director of MIGIZI Communications, a Minneapolis nonprofit focused on the education of Indian children. "There's all of these questions that are huge. It's young people of color who are our future."
The four-year calculation lowers the graduation rate for most of the state's school districts, but the gaps are wider in the urban districts than their suburban counterparts.
Like Minneapolis, St. Paul has a nearly 24-point difference in the current rate (87 percent) and four-year rate (63 percent). In districts such as Edina, Lakeville and Wayzata, the differences are single digits, dropping graduation rates from near 100 percent to the low 90s.
The Minneapolis district has been working to improve its graduation rate, even with the current formula.
Over the past two summers, Minneapolis has spent more than $600,000 on two programs designed to better prepare incoming freshman.
This year, the district unveiled Fast Track Scholars, six weeks of summer school that allows freshmen to earn 3 of the 62.5 credits needed for graduation before they begin high school. Officials estimate it will take years to evaluate whether the efforts help more students graduate in four years.
Before his freshman year, two years ago, Joseph Vang participated in the other program, a four-day camp directed by Project SUCCESS that introduces students to campuses and future classmates. The South High School junior came back this and last summer as a volunteer, helping freshmen adjust socially.
"[The camp] really prepared me, not just education-wise," Vang said. "I know ... friends who don't have support or hang out with the wrong people. They're losing their way."
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491