After a stinging wake-up call on its high school graduation rates, a high-poverty district near Tacoma focused attention on kids who long had struggled. Now their rates are better than the state average.

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High-school graduation rates are widely understood as a measure of success. Numbers in the 90-percent range suggest a district that propels young people toward promise; sagging rates suggest a future of underemployment, poverty and worse.

So 10 years ago, when Bob Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University coined the term “drop-out factory” to describe the 1,700 American high schools where 40 percent of freshmen failed to graduate, it cut deep.

Washington High, in the Franklin Pierce School District south of Tacoma, was on the list. Only 57 percent of ninth-graders there walked across the graduation stage in four years.

But since that icy wake-up call, educators in the 8,000-student district have attacked this pattern, and last June they posted graduation rates that bested the state average in every category — including for poor students, minorities and English-learners.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Ninety-three percent of black students in the high-poverty district graduate on time, compared with a statewide rate of 71 percent. And Latino students cross the threshold at rates 20 points higher than the statewide average of 72 percent.

“The turning point was in 2009 when our high schools were listed as dropout factories,” said district Superintendent Frank Hewins. “It stung.”

The deeper significance of these figures is their context. At the same time that Franklin Pierce improved its graduation rates, poverty in the district spiked. Ten years ago, about half of all kids there qualified for a free or reduced-price school lunch. Today it’s about 75 percent.

But nearly 84 percent of low-income students are walking away with diplomas, which is 15 percentage points higher than the state average for poor kids.

Moving the needle required no special magic, Hewins said, just dogged attention to a series of red-flag indicators that will be familiar to readers of Education Lab: close attention to low attendance, high suspension rates and lagging grades. An emphasis on building relationships between adults and students, and bolstered investments in quality preschool also helped.

“There isn’t some whiz-bang program or person that’s going to change things overnight. It doesn’t happen that way,” Hewins said. “Schools are about working with people, human beings that are forming, and it takes time.”

Impressive graduation numbers, however, are just Chapter 1. In Franklin Pierce, only half of those graduates enroll in college or career-training programs.

“That’s our next challenge,” Hewins said. We’re getting them to the finish line on time, but now we‘ve got to make sure they go beyond it. We still believe that public education is the great equalizer.”