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L.A. Unified reports big rise in its graduation rate

LAUSD's graduation rate of 77% for the 2013-14 school year was 12 percentage points better than previous year

The Los Angeles Unified School District on Friday reported a huge rise in its graduation rate, but left out the students most at risk of not making it to commencement ceremonies.

The district's graduation rate of 77% for the 2013-14 school year was 12 percentage points better than last year, the largest one-year increase under a tracking system that dates from the 2006-07 school year.

The improvement is especially impressive because ongoing statistical gains typically become more difficult to sustain and surpass year after year.

Moreover, the improvement belies the presumption that many of the best students have left the nation's second-largest school system for independently run charter schools. If that is the case, the district may be doing better overall with the students left behind, according to these figures. This progress also occurred during a period of budget cuts caused by the economic recession.

"It's a remarkable acceleration of the graduation rate rarely experienced in big urban districts that serve a lot of poor and blue-collar adolescents," UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller said about the numbers.

In a statement, L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy hailed "a historic high."

"I am grateful for the work that our teachers, administrators and staff have accomplished," Deasy said. "I am also exceedingly proud of our nearly 25,000 graduates."

He said the rate could rise further once it is updated to include students who completed requirements in summer school.

But the good news comes with a substantial caveat. The rate is calculated based on students enrolled in comprehensive high schools, and it leaves out students who transfer to alternative programs — which frequently include those most at risk of dropping out.

For example, Bernstein Senior High in Hollywood had a graduation rate of 62%; Alonzo, the "option" school on the corner of that property, had a graduation rate of 5.2%. Santee Education Complex, south of downtown, had a rate of 68%; Kahlo High School, the alternative campus on its perimeter, had a rate of 10%.

Once the alternative campuses are factored in, L.A. Unified's rate drops to 67% — much less impressive but still surpassing what the district has accomplished in recent history. The previous year's rate of 65% also did not include students in such programs.

In the past, graduation rates have been subject to extreme manipulation, although that is less likely under current methods of record-keeping.

"We continue to move closer to our goal," Deasy said. "The results keep getting better and better."

The statewide graduation rate is 80% for 2012-13, the most recent year available.

The latest figures bring new information to the debate over Deasy's future. The Times reported this week that a majority on the Board of Education has asked its attorneys to discuss a possible departure agreement with Deasy, a polarizing figure on the local and national education scene.

Statistics commonly considered for evaluating progress, including test scores, have moved upward during his tenure. Deasy has acted aggressively on many fronts, especially so-called teacher quality efforts. His administrators have fired more teachers, forced more into retirement and retained fewer new instructors. He's also launched a new evaluation system, which the teachers union contends was put in place without legally required input from teachers.

Fuller said that some lower-profile efforts may be driving much of the graduation gains. The district has concentrated on making high schools smaller and more nurturing. He also noted the district's attempts to portray college as attainable and expected for minority students.

"It may be that we're effectively elevating expectations that college is a real option," Fuller said. "And students are trying harder to get there."

He said outside demographic trends also could play a role, such as higher education levels for Latino parents or changes in immigration patterns.

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