Kansas' education commissioner is encouraging schools across the state to raise high school graduation rates through a focus on individual study plans and family involvement.

Kansas' education commissioner is encouraging schools across the state to raise high school graduation rates through a focus on individual study plans and family involvement.

He also said rapid turnover of leadership positions in state schools presents a challenge.

Dr. Randy Watson, state education commissioner, said recently that Kansas' overall graduation rate of 86 percent needs to improve if Kansas students are to be prepared for life after school.

"Fourteen [percent] will have a difficult time making it to the middle class," Watson told the Kansas State Board of Education. "They just will."

In McPherson County, three school districts — Little River, Smoky Valley, and McPherson — fall below the state average for graduation rates, while the other three — Inman, Moundridge and Canton-Galva — are above the average, according to 2014 statistics, the most recent figures available.

Little River School District had the lowest graduation rate, at 73.1 percent, and is the only district serving McPherson County to fall below the national average of 82 percent. It includes students in Windom and some in Marquette that choose to attend Little River schools. It also has a new superintendent this year.

"I haven't had a lot of time to look at the numbers and why we're so low, but obviously that's not a number we're proud of," said Brent Garrison, Little River's superintendent. "We're definitely going to look at what we can do to improve that, and make sure our students are ready to graduate on time."

Smoky Valley and McPherson school districts fall just shy of the state average, at 83.7 percent and 84.8 percent, respectively. Mark Crawford, who replaced Dr. Watson in 2015 as the district superintendent, said he was surprised to see McPherson's low numbers and considers it a red flag.

"We have a lot of kids who are highly engaged in rigorous coursework," he said. "They get a lot of exposure to different career paths and the coursework pathway they need to prepare for those careers, but there's a certain percentage we're still not reaching."

Crawford said part of the reason for lower numbers could be the way the state counts graduation rates. A student who leaves a district after reaching high school but does not enroll in another school district, counts against the first district's numbers. This includes students who leave a public school setting to be homeschooled.

"As soon as that kid starts with us as a freshman, then we are responsible to ensure their graduation," Crawford said.

Scott Friesen, the new superintendent of Inman School District, said while his district's graduation rate is above average — 91.2 percent — his staff is looking at new ways to prepare students for post-graduation.

"We're following the plan Watson has for the state, and we've had a lot of discussion about graduation rates, career interest and individual study plans at the high school and upper elementary school grades," he said.

John Denk, the new superintendent of Canton-Galva Schools, said that thought the district has done well so far, it can always reach closer to 100 percent.

“We want to see everyone graduate. We can always get better,” Denk said. “Graduation rates are a big focus for the school board, and I agree with their policies and think those numbers are important to address.”

Another area of discussion is social and emotional growth that teaches students soft skills that will make them better employees, such as teamwork and communication skills.

That aspect has also been a focus in McPherson schools, where Watson helped to implement the C3 initiative that stresses citizenship alongside career and college readiness. Watson said his push for higher graduation rates should not be achieved at the cost of quality education that prepares students for life after high school.

One challenge is the high turnover of school administrators. This year, 61 school districts, including Canton-Galva, Inman and Little River school districts, have new superintendents, and another 40, including McPherson and Moundridge, had new superintendents last year. That amounts to 40 percent of superintendents across the state, and all but one in McPherson County.

In addition, one fifth of teachers in the state have fewer than 5 years of experience, and 40 percent have fewer than 10 years experience.

Another challenge is simply finding the time and resources to implement new programs.

"It can be a challenge to find the tools to connect to kids," Crawford said. "One thing we've done is hire more counselors who can meet with kids and their parents at least twice a year, to help them find the education pathway that works for them."

Despite the challenges, Friesen said he's confident schools can and will improve.

"Any time you start something new, you're going to have constant monitoring and changes, and that can be hard," he said. "We just remember we have a great staff, and we just change the plan as we need to to meet our goals."