An upward tick in graduation rates for East and North high schools is being attributed partially to a communitywide program that encourages students to stay in school and earn a diploma.

Columbus North’s graduation rate in increased from 84.6 percent in 2013 to 91.1 percent last spring, Indiana Department of Education data show. Columbus East’s percentage went from 86 percent in 2013 to 88.2 percent in 2014.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. increased its graduation rate from 85.2 percent in 2013 to 89.8 percent in 2014, which matched the statewide number for graduation percentage.

Kathy Oren, Community Education Coalition executive director, said the numbers show that the iGrad program, an initiative that began in 2012, is beginning to have an impact.

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The iGrad program stemmed from a collaboration among the coalition, Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus and Cummins Inc., which focuses on mentoring, motivation and remediation to encourage students to stay on a diploma track.

Students are paired with adult graduation coaches and volunteer tutors and mentors.

In just the program’s second year, 60 of 64 seniors in iGrad during spring 2014 graduated, Oren said. In 2013, 42 of 44 seniors enrolled in iGrad graduated.

Oren said a key element to iGrad is the mentoring component, because a student’s iGrad coach becomes that student’s champion and advocate, something many students haven’t experienced before.

“For me, the key is the coaches,” Oren said. “They are building strong relationships with students who are struggling with hopelessness. The coaches are giving them a reason to hope.”

BCSC Director of Secondary Education Bill Jensen agreed that iGrad deserves a lot of credit for the graduation rate increases, but he said there are other pieces to the success, too.

“We’re trying to be more intentional about the quality of instruction,” he said. That includes an emphasis on students understanding why they need to learn certain parts of the curriculum and why it will benefit them in the future.

And principals at the two high schools are getting involved in talking with students who are withdrawing and steering them toward iGrad or other opportunities that could help them stay in school, such as programs through McDowell Education Center.

The iGrad program has the component of bringing education, business and community service representatives together to improve graduation rates, said John Burnett, education coalition president and CEO.

He added he was amazed by the partnerships and those in the community filling the gaps to help educators provide the services that students need in order to make it to graduation.

The iGrad program was developed to complement the work the schools already do and to provide more support to administrators, teachers and counselors already working to keep students heading toward graduation.

“A lot of it is way beyond academics,” Burnett said.

“Students tend to stop going to high school in their minds long before they drop out. It manifests itself in grades and attendance. And in many cases, many deeper things are going on.”

Columbus East Principal Mark Newell said that the goal is that all students will graduate and that school officials will exhaust all avenues to prevent students from dropping out.

The graduation rate is a four-year rate, meaning students are tracked over their high school career and the percentage is based on four years, not just year to year.

East, along with most high schools, has students who don’t complete their high school work in eight semesters but instead become fifth-year seniors, which sometimes skews the statistics a bit.

“This is a four-year on-time graduation rate,” Jensen said. “Some students may take nine semesters. Some students finish before eight semesters.”

Another issue at East was a coding error in 2011 that listed the school’s graduation rate at 74.7 percent that year, said Charles Edwards, East’s assistant principal.

East was miscoding the reason students were leaving before graduation and school officials did not discover the error until after the window for corrections at the state Department of Education had closed.

“I’m positive that number should have been in the 80s,” Edwards said, although the state has not allowed the school to recalculate and correct the number.

Hauser High School’s graduation rate took another slight dip, from 90.8 percent in 2013 to 88 percent last spring.

Flat Rock-Hawcreek Superintendent Kathy Griffey said school officials were examining data in the report that indicated out of Hauser’s 75-student graduating class in 2014, 74 were listed as not having English as their primary language.

“Obviously, that’s not the case,” she said, adding school officials are puzzled by the discrepancy but know that the state Department of Education has had some “hiccups” in its data.

Because Hauser’s graduating class is so small, just one student who doesn’t graduate can result in more than a 1 percentage point reduction in the school’s overall graduation rate, Griffey said.

“We knew we weren’t going to quite make the 90.8 rate and going to 88 was not a total surprise,” she said.

“We don’t give up on these students at all, and every student is important to us,” she said, adding that Hauser continues to be a high-performing high school, earning an A from the state, something the graduation rate factors into.

Achieving a 100 percent graduation rate at a high school is an aspirational goal but is extremely difficult, Burnett said.

The overall goal is that all students attain the skills they need to become self-sufficient adults and that they are prepared for the workforce or postsecondary education, Oren said.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.