Merced County high school grad rates are consistently above the state average. What officials say is working

On February 14, 2024 by Rachel Livinal
PHOTO CAPTION: Steven Tietjen, Merced County’s superintendent announced high school graduation rates and other initiatives the office of education led during the 2022-23 school year.  KVPR/Rachel Livinal

The data was included in an annual report that also included how each high school district ranks for graduation rates. 

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MERCED, Calif. — Education leaders in Merced County say overall high school graduation rates are continuing to soar past the state average – a positive trend that’s happened now for three consecutive years. 

The news was included in the Merced County Office of Education’s annual education report, the results of which were made public during a luncheon Thursday.

During the 2022-23 school year, public high schools in Merced County reported an average graduation rate of 92.5%. In contrast, the state average for 2022-23 was almost 4% lower at 88.7%, the report said.

“We really put a conscious effort into making sure that kids in the younger grades see (graduation) as a goal,” said Steven Tietjen, MCOE’s superintendent of schools.

Tietjen said Merced County has held high graduation rates for nearly a decade, and some of it could be attuned to programs like Project 10% that connect college-goers with younger students. 

The program allowed UC Merced students to come speak at local middle schools. Eighth grade students would learn about college life and pledge to complete high school. 

“Their life experiences are a lot like kids that are living here,” Tietjen said. “‘Are mom and dad going to put a roof over our head this month or are we going to have to move?’ Or ‘is mom doing it all by herself because dad is someplace else?’ Those kinds of stories told by UC students to kids in our schools here are making a big difference.”

Tietjen said since then, students who pledged to complete high school have graduated because the program allowed them to see college students with similar backgrounds achieving higher education.

Project 10% was discontinued during the pandemic, although a new program is expected to start this spring called “Best you, Best future.” It will target 6th grade students. 

How individual districts performed 

Among top-rated districts last year were Delhi Unified and Le Grand High Unified – both achieved a 97.8% graduation rate. Hilmar Unified came second at 97.1% followed by Los Banos Unified with 96.7%. 

Merced Union High School District (94.7%), Gustine Unified (91.9%) and Dos Palos-Oro Loma Joint Unified (91.2%) were also included in the report. 

Delhi Unified has been able to keep consistently high graduation rates throughout time.Delhi Unified Superintendent Jose Kuba said a hybrid credit recovery program for the district may be making a positive impact. He said the program, which the district has offered since 2017, immediately remedies academic problems for students during the school year. 

“When students fall behind, if they fail the course or courses, our first priority is we want to make sure that we provide them support but in a way in which they’re still connected to the school community,” Kuba said. 

Kuba said the district used to have a continuation school that separated students who were falling behind, but the school closed down right before the new program was implemented. He said since all students now attend the same school, they feel like they’re part of the “family.”

“We don’t give ourselves the option to send the kids out when they fall behind,” Kuba said. 

Small changes in recent years

While maintaining a reach above the statewide average, the percentage of graduates for the county last year comes at a rate slightly higher than in 2022. In 2022, Merced County reported a graduation rate of 92% compared to last year’s 92.5%. However, the county has yet to reach or exceed its historically high rate of 93.3% that was reported during the 2020 school year. 

Most districts reported lower graduation rates in 2023 than in 2020 – with the exception of Le Grand’s pivotal 5.3% jump, Los Banos Unified’s minor increase, and Hilmar’s identical rate.

Delhi Unified  dipped from its previous high of 98.2% in 2020, while Le Grand rose more than 5% from 92.5% in the same year, making it turn from the lowest rated district to the highest in the three-year span. 

The Merced County Office of Education supports 20 local public school districts serving a total of nearly 60,000 students.

The agency also manages Head Start and child care subsidy programs, in addition to serving migrant education students in Merced, Stanislaus and Madera counties. 

Rachel Livinal covers higher education for KVPR in Fresno and the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom covering the San Joaquin Valley.

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