A new online data tool available to the public shows that Del Norte County Unified School District has made gains when it comes to its graduation rates while its suspension and chronic absenteeism rates have declined.

According to the 2018 California School Dashboard, launched publicly on Thursday, Del Norte County Unified School District’s 2017-18 graduation rate is 91.7 percent, ahead of the state graduation rate of 83. 5 percent.

The district’s chronic absenteeism decreased from 20.9 percent in 2016-17 to 16.3 percent in 2017-18. Its current suspension rate declined from 8.4 percent in 2016-17 to 4.8 percent in 2017-18, according to the new data.

Thanks to the progress it has made, Del Norte County Unified School District is no longer required to be in differentiated assistance, Superintendent Jeff Harris said.

“There’s still lots for us to work on, but moving out of differentiated assistance is a huge thing,” he said. “The Humboldt County Office of (Education) went into differentiated assistance. In Lake County, of five districts that are there, four are now in differentiated assistance. While other districts are going in we were one of the fewer that came out.”

Launched by the California Department of Education and state Board of Education last year, the first version of the California School Dashboard measures a district’s chronic absenteeism, suspension rate, English learner progress, graduation rate and performance in English-language arts and mathematics.

The second version of the Dashboard evaluates K-8 schools and districts on school attendance and also tracks the college and career readiness of schools that serves high school grades, according to a press release from the California Department of Education.

The new dashboard also tracks math and English-language arts test scores in grade 11. It monitors the performance of students who attend alternative schools including continuation high schools and programs for incarcerated youth.

The dashboard also offers a four-year cohort graduation rate that reflects changes in methodology in compliance with the U.S. Department of Education, according to the California Department of Education.

School and district performance levels are indicated by color with red being the lowest and blue being the highest. Districts with one or more student groups in the “red” on two metrics are eligible for state help. Last year, 228 districts received state assistance.

This year, 374 districts qualify for specialized assistance, according to the California Department of Education.

Last year, Del Norte County Unified School District contracted with WestEd, a joint powers agency governed by public entities in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah to determine what student populations weren’t succeeding and what needed to be fixed.

On Friday, Harris noted that while Del Norte High School’s 2017-18 graduation rate improved by .1 percent, Sunset High School’s declined by 5.1 percent. Sunset’s graduation rate was 83 percent in 2016-17 compared to the 2017-18 rate of 78.6 percent.

However, Harris said, the graduation rate in California is determined by cohort — that is, students who started as freshmen and graduated with their class four years later. A lot of “fifth-year seniors” attend Sunset High School, he said, but there aren’t many dropouts.

Harris noted Sunset has anywhere from 35 to 50 seniors and typically takes in students that are 16 years old or older and are significantly credit deficient.

As for its chronic absenteeism numbers, Harris said the district had a decrease in chronic absenteeism by more than 8 percent from the 2015-16 rate of 24.2 percent to the 2016-17 rate of 20.9 percent and finally to the 2018 rate of 16.3 percent.

Del Norte County Unified’s 2017-18 chronic absenteeism rate is still higher than the state average of 9 percent, however, Harris noted the statewide chronic absenteeism increased by 3 percent.

“I think the teachers are developing good relationships with families and kids — there’s been more outreach,” he said. “We as a district are ensuring that schools are getting funds for attendance incentives, for student recognition for kids that are attending.”

Del Norte County Unified School District is also trying to find out why students may miss school, Harris said. It is partnering with the Del Norte County Probation Department and the district attorney on prevention and early intervention work, he said. There are other local partners that are pushing the academic and educational side of things as well, Harris said.

“Families who have kids in preschool and first grade are hearing from their preschool folks how important it is to attend school for the first-graders and as we’re talking about first grade, we’re talking about how important it is to attend preschool,” he said. “They’re hearing the same message really consistently.”

Meanwhile, Del Norte County Unified School District’s 2017-18 suspension rate, at 4.8 percent, shows a 3.7 percent decline from the previous rate, Harris said. This puts the district closer to the 2017-18 statewide average of 3.5 percent. Last year, he said, Del Norte was nearly double the statewide suspension rate.

Noting that suspension is the most serious disciplinary action short of expulsion, Harris said the district has made sure that disciplinary practices were “commensurate with the education code that was violated.”

“We looked at things like at what point do we actually suspend? What level does this particular infraction rise to?” Harris said. “So, you hear a child cuss at another child. What we were seeing two and three years ago, was we were seeing kids being suspended for three days for cussing on the playground. We’re saying is that really proportional discipline to the infraction? And the answer’s no.”

Harris said the district is also taking a look at its reporting mechanisms, which is uploaded to the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System. In some cases, he said, although students were still in school while being disciplined, the only options they had were documenting the disciplinary action as a suspension.

“We went back and made sure that our system that we were reporting on had the accurate codes in it for the actual discipline that was being done,” he said. “That shifted it quite a bit, too, because one of the things we found last year, based on the 16-17 data, was a child could be inappropriately coded as suspended for 30 minutes at any point during the year and another student suspended for 18 days and they still counted as a suspension.”

For many students, Harris said, a 30-minute suspension took care of the problem for the entire year, but chronic suspensions were counted the same.

Although district staff is still analyzing the new data, Harris said there is still room for improvement. He noted that in suspensions, 19 percent of the district’s African American students were suspended at least once, according to the 2017-18 data. However, Harris said, there are only 36 African American students attending Del Norte County Unified School District schools.

“If you round it up to 20 percent you’re talking 7 of the 36 were suspended at least once,” he said. “We’re looking into that more closely to see what was happening there.”

As for the district’s foster youth, out of 101 students, 11 percent were suspended at least once, according to the 2017-18 data. Harris said this shows a significant decline in suspensions among district foster youth. He noted that the 2016-17 suspension rate among foster youth was 19.8 percent. The 2017-18 rate is 10.9 percent.

“Whenever the principal was getting ready to suspend a foster child, they contacted one of our district foster staff who would come in and work with the principal, work with the child and work with the family to determine the level of discipline and determine other supports feasible to do alternative to a suspension,” Harris said. “We saw a huge decline.”

For more information about the 2018 California School Dashboard and Del Norte County Unified School District’s data, visit www.caschooldashboard.org.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .