Minnesota's high school four-year graduation rate rose again last year, albeit slightly, along with more substantial increases for most racial and ethnic groups.

Still, there remains a persistent gap in graduation rates across the state between white students and students of color, according to data released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Education. While graduation rates ticked up for Hispanic and black students, the graduation rate for American Indians was stuck at roughly 50% compared with a statewide average of about 84% for all students in 2019.

Education officials are pleased the gaps between student groups are closing, but Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said they have a lot more work to do. The statewide goal for 2020 is ambitious: 90% of students graduating within four years, with no student group below 85%.

"We know our students need more from us," Ricker said Thursday in a telephone news conference. "We won't stop until the gaps are closed and every student in the state of Minnesota receives a world-class education from caring and qualified educators in a safe and nurturing environment."

One of the more troubling areas, state education officials noted, is a graduation rate of less than 50% for students in families that are homeless or have unstable housing situations. Many of these students bounce from school to school, doing the academic work, but they often aren't in any one school long enough to earn a semester credit, Ricker said. In an effort to fix that, education officials are pushing legislation for "credit accrual," which would allow students to carry their academic progress to a new school instead of having to start over, she said.

Education officials also are examining schools that have outperformed the statewide graduation rate in an effort to replicate their success at other schools. A common theme among the more successful schools is cultural responsiveness and inclusivity, Ricker said. "[There's] intentionality of getting to know students and prioritizing relationships … that make students feel seen and heard and missed when they're gone."

In Duluth, the district says it has created that kind of environment for American Indian students. Adult mentors work with students to increase achievement and guide them to graduation, said Assistant Superintendent Jeff Horton.

The district also has an Ojibwe immersion program, in which American Indian students learn their language and culture. "It leads to an increased desire to be in school and be more engaged," Horton said.

In Brooklyn Center, the path to graduation extends from prekindergarten to 12th grade, said Superintendent Carly Baker.

"Some of the students experience obstacles before they even reach the threshold of our schools," she said. The schools work with students and their families to mitigate those issues, such as homelessness, mental illness, food insecurity and transportation, she said.

The result is that 11 of the 12 homeless students in the class of 2019 graduated in four years, as did nearly 85% of the students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch. In comparison, 71% of the students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch statewide graduated in four years.

Baker said the district is committed to inclusivity.

Students have a say in the school's programs, what's being taught in classrooms and discipline, she said. "Students are sitting at the table when we make those decisions," Baker said. "It's not just adults making decisions behind closed doors."

Teachers and staff also find ways to connect with students on a personal level, such as reaching out to a child who is sleeping in class. "They might ask, 'Is everything OK and can I help?' Those are the things we believe make a difference in helping kids persevere through," Baker said.

On Thursday, education officials reveled in their successes. The state had 57,171 students graduate in 2019, which translated to nearly an 84% graduation rate, up half a percentage point from the previous year. Additionally, 3,806 students from earlier classes also earned their diplomas in 2019, graduating five, six or seven years after beginning high school.

Among the high-achieving districts were Randolph, with all 38 students graduating in four years, and Wayzata, with 96% of its 835 students graduating on time, according to data compiled by state education officials.

In Minneapolis, the four-year graduation rate hit 75% — up 6 percentage points from the previous year and closing in on St. Paul's graduation rate of about 76%.

"We want to increase the four-year graduation rate, and we're really encouraged we have fewer kids dropping out," Ricker said. "Students are getting the message … if you can graduate in four years, we're really proud of you. And if you persist into year five, we're really proud of you, too. And if you need to persist into year six, we are really proud of you and we're going to persist alongside you."

Natalie Rademacher is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune. Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report.