Rochester’s graduation rate was essentially unchanged in 2020 when compared to the preceding years, although it was still lower than many of the smaller, surrounding districts.

The Minnesota Department of Education released the data on Thursday. RPS’ overall four-year graduation rate was 85.6%, slightly higher than the statewide percentage of 83.8%.

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“We focus on developing relationships with students and identifying the individual needs of students,” Superintendent Michael Muñoz said in a press release. “Last winter and spring was particularly difficult as we ended the school year in distance learning due to the pandemic. Through it all, our support staff, teachers, and administrators worked tirelessly to meet the needs of our students, and I am proud of the work they carried out in a new and unfamiliar environment.”

Both the student drop-out rate and the actual number of students dropping out were actually lower in 2020 than any other year since before 2016. Muñoz attributed that to the district making sure students stayed connected to their school communities during the last months of the 2019-20 school year.

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The graduation rate also may have had some help from a “hold harmless” policy the district implemented at the tail end of the school year. Essentially, it dictated that students’ grades from the start of distance learning in March through the end of the year would not negatively impact their GPAs.

RPS’ four-year graduation rate of 85.6% in 2020 was just slightly lower than the 85.9% recorded the year before and the 87% recorded in 2018.

The highest-performing subgroup was Asian students, whose graduation rate was 89.5%. White students closely followed at 88.8%. Hispanic students came in at 80.9%, while Black students came in more than 14 percentage points behind the highest-performing subgroup at 75%.

Rochester isn't alone in that wide margin. The statewide graduation rate for Black students was 69.2%, compared to Asian students' four-year graduation rate of 89.1%.

In spite of those gaps between student groups, Muñoz said they have greatly improved since he first came to the district a decade ago. The Minnesota Department of Education's website only provides numbers going back to 2016.

The RPS Black graduation rate dipped a little in 2020. The year before, it had been at 80.3%. Muñoz said they need to look into that backslide, but he also said it's important to look at more than one or two years.

"You have to look at the big picture," he said. "I would argue the district has made good progress over the years."

Overall, female students recorded a higher graduation rate than their male counterparts. The female graduation rate in 2020 was 87.7%, compared to 83.7% for males.

Even within the Rochester School District, there were some differences in the graduation rate. Of the three public high schools, Mayo had the highest graduation rate in 2020 at 94%. John Marshall was next at 91.6%. Century came in last at 85.5%, more than 8 percentage points behind Mayo.

Economic and home-life factors play a large role in the graduation rates of students. Students eligible for free-and-reduced-lunch had a graduation rate of 73.5%. On the flipside, the overall graduation rate for students not receiving free-and-reduced-lunch was 94.7%. Homeless students in the district had a graduation rate of 48.3%, amounting to 42 students.

The state provides several categories for students who did not graduate in a four-year period. At RPS, 9.3% of its students were categorized as “continuing,” and 3% were categorized as having dropped out. There also were 2.1% of students placed in the category of “unknown.”

Overall, the surrounding school districts outperformed the larger, more diverse Rochester Public Schools.

Byron Public Schools, for example, had a 100% graduation rate in 2020. Pine Island had a graduation rate of 96.3%, Plainview-Elgin-Millville came in at 96.7%, and Dover-Eyota registered at 94.3%. While still higher than Rochester, Stewartville had a slightly lower graduation rate compared to some other surrounding districts, coming in at 90.4%.

Although it didn't register as high as some of the smaller districts, Rochester didn't have the lowest graduation rate in the southeast portion of the state. Austin Public Schools had a four-year graduation rate of 80.8%, and Winona Area Public Schools had a rate of 78.5%.