MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — New state Department of Education data show high school graduation rates have improved steadily for five years in West Virginia, jumping 8.5 percent since the fall of 2008.
Officials credit a variety of retention and alternative-education programs in public schools, as well as an anti-truancy initiative the state Supreme Court launched in 2012.
The state's figures show that 79.3 percent of seniors graduated during the 2012-13 school year, up from 70.8 percent in 2008-09.
"It's working," Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis said Wednesday, crediting circuit court judges for embracing a program that holds parents and caregivers accountable when children miss too much school. Some counties have even hired probation officers specifically to deal with truancy, she said, "and in the counties that have done that, the truancy rate has dramatically increased and graduation rates have dramatically increased."
Davis, who traveled to all 55 counties to focus attention on the problem, says eight of 10 people sitting in jail or prison are high school dropouts. Dropouts have a harder time finding jobs, often resorting to crime to get by.
Experts say truancy also increases the risk of drug and alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy.
"We either solve it — starting in preschool and kindergarten and planting the seed there — or we end up paying for it as a society, building jails and prisons," Davis said. "That's a no-brainier to me."
The smaller the high school, the more dramatic the change can be from one year to the next.
Recent graduation-rate declines of 21.3 percent in Morgan County, 17.6 percent in Doddridge County and 10.2 percent in Clay County, for example, were skewed by just a few students, said state attendance officer Becky Derenge.
That also happens with huge increases, like the 12.2 percent improvement at Tug Valley High in Mingo County, an 11.9 percent increase at Ripley High in Jackson County and an 11.7 percent improvement at tiny Hundred High in Wetzel County.
What's important, Derenge said, is the overall positive trend.
The courts' involvement has spread a message that educators have championed for years.
"Sometimes you can't be a prophet in your own land," she said.
But Derenge credits other factors, too.
In 2010, legislators raised the legal dropout age to 17, requiring students to stay in school at least another year. Some counties raised that to 18 under a state-approved program.
That same year, lawmakers also slashed the number of permissible absences from 10 to five. And Derenge said school districts are more diligent about communicating with the state Division of Motor Vehicles to enforce a longstanding law that requires schools to sign off on teenage drivers' permits.
The state also recently launched an early warning system that lets districts drill into data and identify children with key risk factors — behavioral issues, more than five absences or a failing grade in a major course.
Derenge said 34 counties have begun using the tool for grades 6-12, directing social workers or other resources to the families that may need help. The Department of Education is working on a similar tool for younger children, she said, because if kids can't read by the sixth grade, it's likely too late to reverse their course.
A recent West Virginia KIDS COUNT report found that seven in 10 children can't read proficiently by the end of third grade. It said three-fourths of those children will remain poor readers throughout high school, and one in six won't graduate.
The state is also looking at more alternative education programs to get kids diplomas. Of the more than 800 seniors enrolled this past school year in Option Pathway, a combination of career and technical education and the state-approved curriculum, more than 370 earned diplomas.
"The success in that program grows every year," Derenge said.
In June, a separate KIDS COUNT report found that 26 percent of the state's children have lived in poverty since 2005. But the number of teenagers who are neither working nor in school rose slightly to 11 percent in 2011, and the number of children whose parents lack secure employment rose from 32 percent to 35 percent.
Derenge said that with so many single-parent and struggling families, West Virginia must provide options.
"We've got to start looking at students individually," she said. "One size doesn't fit all."
Approaches must include homeless, incarcerated and otherwise disenfranchised children, she said, with a big focus on career planning.
"If you don't have a goal," Derenge said, "you get lost."
Truancy officers are making such a powerful difference that there are many discussions afoot about approaching lawmakers next year to make the positions mandatory.
Justice Davis says it's unclear who might propose a bill, "but once that happens, it's just going to snowball."
"There's always room for improvement," she said. "The good news is that as people see the numbers and they see the impact that this is creating on truancy and graduation rates, then everyone gets on board."