Hampton and Newport News schools, despite generally making year-over-year improvements in graduation rates since 2008, lagged behind the state average in handing out high school diplomas last year.
Every other Peninsula-area public school division boasted higher on-time graduation rates than the statewide figure of 90.5 percent, according to data released Tuesday by the Virginia Department of Education.
Hampton and Newport News were close, graduating 88 percent and 89.5 percent of students, respectively. Hampton's figure, though, is a large increase over its dip to 83.5 percent in 2013-14, but the lowest in the area.
The school divisions in Gloucester, Isle of Wight, Mathews, Poquoson, Williamsburg-James City and York all graduated more than 90.5 percent of their high schoolers in four years, the second year in a row that all six exceeded that rate.
In general, local divisions have kept up with the statewide trend of improving year-over-year. In 2008, 82.1 percent of high school students in Virginia graduated on time, and that number has risen every year to reach the nine-out-of-10-students figure, as state officials pointed out.
This year, dropout rates across every local division were below the state rate of 5.2 percent for the first time since the state began tracking students in classes based on what year they first entered ninth grade. Newport News' dropout rate has decreased since it was as high as 11.9 percent in 2008, while Poquoson's has sat at 1 percent twice.
Since those groups, called cohorts, began with the 2007-08 graduating class, Peninsula-area divisions have generally trended upward in both getting students to finish on time and to stay in school.
In Newport News' 2008 class, for example, only 72.8 percent of students finished in four years. The division has posted year-over-year improvements to almost reach the statewide rate, a goal Superintendent Ashby Kilgore sees as a benchmark.
Over the same time span, the division reduced its dropout rate from a Peninsula-area high of 11.8 percent to 2.8 percent in 2015. That rate translates to a reduction of 259 dropouts in 2008 to just 52 out of the 2015 cohort of 1,874 students.
"I think it's a tribute to our willingness to see a problem and to say, 'We can put a system around this problem and make a difference in it,'" Kilgore said of the improved numbers. "And we really did that very strategically and with a lot of prongs to the initiative that all have a synergy about them ...
"It's not haphazard. It's not like, 'Boy, aren't we lucky,' We had an issue, we developed a response, several responses, and those responses have made a difference for kids," Kilgore said.
In Hampton, Superintendent Jeffery Smith credited the "focused work of the staff" for much of the improvement. "We celebrate that Hampton is moving in the right direction," he said.
In 2008, just 72 percent of Hampton students graduated on time, the lowest rate of any Peninsula division from 2008 to 2015. That rate climbed to 86.6 percent in 2012-13, before falling to 83.9 percent last year. Now, thanks to all four Hampton high schools posting improvements over 2013-14 numbers, Hampton is at its best figure from that time period — 88 percent.
"Hampton could not have the improvement in graduation rates without the extraordinary support of the community and families partnering with our staff to engage more students to achieve their goal of a high school diploma," Smith, in his first year as Hampton superintendent, said in a statement. "The work continues in order to achieve the strategic goal of 100 percent of our students graduating college- and career-ready."
Both Newport News and Hampton officials cited having graduation coaches or specialists in schools, tracking attendance and other factors that might need intervention, alternate education such as online classes and other efforts as ways the divisions can help ensure students finish in four years.
For divisions as large as Newport News and Hampton — Hampton had 1,553 students in the latest cohort — the system that tracks every student with a numerical identifier has helped ensure more students receive the attention they need to graduate.
"We have people who are really skilled with knowing where you are in your journey, but also what are the options that best fit you and your schedule," said Brian Nichols, chief academic officer for Newport News Public Schools. "There is no one solution for any of our kids, so we have a set of traditional options for you and we also have nontraditional options."
Results from other school divisions in this region include:
Gloucester graduated 395 of the 415 students who entered the high school in the 2010-2011 school year, a 93.7 rate. The division posted a 78.6 on-time graduation rate in 2008, hovered in the high-70s through 2010, before jumping to 86.7 in 2011. Since then, the division has steadily increased its number of four-year graduates to its current peak.
At the same time, Gloucester's dropout rate has reduced to 3.6 percent from a peak of 9.4 percent in 2010. Given the size of its cohorts — 2015's 3.6 percent translates to 15 students — Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services Chuck Wagner said that statistically, the changes aren't dramatic. But still, he said, the division is "pleased to see the graduation rate trending upward. ...
"Over the past six years, school leaders in Gloucester have been monitoring student academic progress throughout middle and high school much more intently," Wagner said. The school division "tracks student progress to identify and provide support for students who demonstrate academic risk," and has "a credit recovery program" to help students meet graduation requirements.
Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight, while staying above the state's on-time graduation rate of 90.5, was one of two Peninsula-area divisions that saw its rate decrease from 2013-14.
The division graduated 91.6 percent of its students in four years, down from 92.6 percent in the previous year. At the same time, the dropout rate fell from 3.5 percent, or 16 students, to 2.5 percent, or 11 students.
Multiple phone calls and emails to Isle of Wight County school officials for comment were not returned.
Mathews' 2014-15 cohort consists of just 114 students. Of those, 108, or 93 percent, graduated in four years. Mathews' dropout rate was 2.6 percent, a number that has been as high as 7.6 percent in 2009.
For Superintendent Nancy Welch, the division's size means that year-over-year numbers can wildly fluctuate if even only a handful more of students graduate, but it also means teachers can know every student.
"We look at our students individually and if something's not working we make that change. We're not waiting for them to fail," Welsh said. "We have a great community that helps us out with that, and some alternative education options that can help the students."
Welch cited using a hybrid schedule that uses online education as one of the ways to help students who can't attend the traditional school day. "School divisions are having to get really creative," she said. "We have to really think outside the box reach those children."
For students who didn't finish in four years, Welch said the division tries to reach out and work with them to ensure they complete high school.
"Just because they're not in the rate this year doesn't mean we're forgetting about them," she said. "We don't work that way."
Poquoson owned the highest graduation rate of Peninsula-area schools at 94.8 percent. The division, however, was one of two in the area to decrease, as Poquoson had a 96.4 rate in 2013-14. Of this year's cohort of 193 students, only 1 percent dropped out, another area-best figure.
"This graduation rate provides us important data about the progress of our high school students," Mike Cataldo, director of accountability and technology, said in a statement. "It helps us as we work hard to ensure that all of our students are ultimately prepared for the college or career of their choice."
Williamsburg-James City County schools improved for the eighth year in a row to rise to a 91.1 percent on-time graduation rate. The division's dropout rate has fluctuated between 1.6 percent and 8.6 percent, and currently sits at its lowest rate of 1.6.
Scott Thorpe, director of accountability and special programs, said the division works on examining and refining its internal data to keep track of which students are still in the division and which students might be struggling.
To continue to improve graduation rates, school officials said they start to assess students in middle school.
"School counselors work individually with students and develop a four-year plan," said Melissa Bentley, coordinator of accountability and assessment. "That conversation starts in middle school and it's implemented in ninth grade. Sometimes, we have to alter the plan for students depending on their successes and opportunities along the way. We have student advancement coaches in the high schools here and they work closely with students that need additional support and encouragement."
To continue to stay above the statewide rates, Thorpe said, "We are deeply committed to meeting every student where they are every year in high school and making sure they get what they need."
York school officials cited similar tactics to those in Newport News and Hampton as part of the reason the division had a 94.6 percent on-time graduation rate. Since 2010, that rate has not dipped below 94.1 percent. The division's dropout rate did rise to 3.6 percent, or 36 students. Ten more students dropped out of the 2015 cohort than in 2014.
"The division is pleased to have maintained an overall on-time graduation rate above 94 percent for five years, which is a testament to our hard-working students, our dedicated staff and supportive families," Katherine Goff, coordinator of community and public relations, said in a statement.
"School counselors, administrators and teachers meet regularly with students at risk of not graduating, and use multiple forms of data to assign interventions and create graduation plans," Goff said. "In addition, some of our principals adjusted their school schedule to allow time for extra academic support, assigned students to our Virtual High School program, and even provided personal wake-up calls to encourage regular attendance."
Staff writers Reema Amin, Peter Dujardin, Frances Hubbard and Jennifer L. Williams contributed to this report. Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951.