Graduation rates for black students at Minnesota high schools rose 3 percentage points in 2016, a sign of progress in narrowing the achievement gap between white students and students of color, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

While the black students’ gains were most pronounced, the graduation rate for all students also continued along a slow upward trend. Across Minnesota, 82.2 percent of last year’s senior class graduated within four years — the highest overall rate recorded by the department.

“Graduating high school is a crucial step in attaining the dream we all have for success in life,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in a statement released Thursday. “It is encouraging to see more Minnesota students — especially more of our students of color and American Indian students — reaching this milestone.”

Still, the overall rate grew at a slower pace than in past years, rising by one-third of one percentage point. And officials cautioned that there is more work to be done while cheering the successes so far.

There’s still an 18 percentage-point difference between the graduation rate of white students and students of color. Sixty-five percent of black students graduated in 2016, and the rate is even lower for American Indian students, who had a 52.6 percent graduation rate.

Gov. Mark Dayton called the record-high graduation rates a positive in a statement Thursday, but said that “disparities between students of color and white students persist.”

Progress varied across the metro area. Minneapolis Public Schools saw graduation rates rise about 3 percentage points, and St. Paul’s increased by 1.5 percentage points. Among suburban districts, Fridley, Brooklyn Center, Inver Grove Heights and Richfield saw some of the largest growth in the metro area, while graduation rates in Spring Lake Park and St. Anthony-New Brighton dropped.

Addressing the gap

A statewide focus on equity in schools had a hand in the graduation rate rise and progress toward closing the gap between white students and students of color, said Josh Collins, Education Department spokesman. The department’s efforts have included targeting students at risk for on-time graduation and launching a statewide campaign that aims for a 90 percent graduation rate for all students by 2020.

“Schools are very focused on gaps and disparities,” Collins said. “There has been a tremendous amount of conversation about equity going on in our schools in recent years.”

In Fridley, where the graduation rate for black students jumped by almost 10 percentage points from 2015 to 2016, officials pointed to schoolwide efforts to focus on college readiness. Imina Oftedahl, director of Educational Services for Fridley, also noted the AVID program designed to lower the achievement gap. That effort included hiring more support staff and encouraging students to take college-level courses.

Richfield High School’s graduation rates jumped by 5.5 percentage points, which district Superintendent Steven Unowsky credits to the hiring of Principal Latanya Daniels. She was formerly a principal at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis which, during her time, had the Minneapolis School District’s highest graduation rates.

With the commitment of staff, Richfield High School was able to reduce the number of students failing by 40 percent, Daniels said. She is hoping to have 90 percent of students graduate by 2019.

“You don’t slip backwards because you build systems to make sure that you create a machine to push out as many students as possible to be successful out of high school or into college or another career,” she said.

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a statement Thursday that she hopes graduation rates will continue to rise because of early childhood education and full-service community schools that would provide more for children and families.

‘More work to do’

In Minneapolis, the district’s black student graduation rate jumped by about 7 percentage points, but its graduation rate for Latino students dropped by nearly the same amount. The Minneapolis district’s strategic plan, Acceleration 2020, aims for a 10 percent yearly rise in the district’s four-year graduation rate.

North High School in Minneapolis — a school where enrollment also rose in the past year — increased its graduation rate by more than 11 percentage points in 2016.

“The urgency around addressing the achievement gap is real, and while we are celebrating some good news today, we are also mindful that we have significantly more work to do as a district and as a community to support all students,” Superintendent Ed Graff said in a statement Thursday.

St. Paul Public Schools’ students of color also saw graduation rates grow. Graduation rates for Latino students were higher for the seventh year in a row, and rates for black students were higher for the fourth year in a row, a district release said.

There, where officials in recent years have cited a focus on ninth-graders and efforts to introduce students to postsecondary options as keys to lifting graduation rates, interim Superintendent John Thein on Thursday sought to redirect attention to the hard work of students.

At Creative Arts Secondary School, that means the kids think in new ways and take time to reflect. Dancers will detail as part of a “write it Wednesday” exercise how they feel about a particular series of moves and the message they try to convey while performing, said Theresa Battle, an assistant superintendent who oversees high schools.

“Students felt validated,” Principal Carlondrea Hines said of the news and the school's approach to learning. “They begin to see themselves as academic artists.”

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.