LANSING - On-time high school graduation rates are down in some Michigan counties, but that may not be a bad thing.
In downstate Leelanau County, 2011 graduation statistics are looking worse because Suttons Bay High School has taken on at-risk students whom the district knows won't graduate in the standard four years, said Principal Raphael Rittenhouse.
He said other districts around the state try to get at-risk students to drop out prior to ninth grade - before they bring down graduations statistics - or send them to alternative schools for the same reason.
Suttons Bay has as many online students from districts across Michigan as local in-classroom students, Rittenhouse said. Many had been turned away from other districts.
"We're doing a better job of keeping kids and not sending them to alternative schools," he said.
But the official numbers suggest that Leelanau schools have slid downhill. In 2007, 5.6 percent of the county's students didn't graduate on time, the best completion rate in the state, according to Kids Count. In 2011, that number rose to 20.7 percent, and its rank dropped to 33, among 82 ranked counties.
Kids Count is a national effort to use statistics about the well being of children to promote policies that will improve their lives.
The statistics incorporate all public schools, including charters.
Marquette County, which is home to Marquette Alternative High School, ranked 21 out of 82 counties in graduation rates. Alger County came in at 12 out of 82.
Leelanau County has four school districts; Suttons Bay Public Schools, Glen Lake Community Schools, Leland Public School District and Northport Public School District - each has one high school.
In 2011, Clinton County topped the statewide chart with 8.3 percent not graduating on time, while Lake County bottomed out at 47.1 percent, according to Kids Count.
In 2007-08, Suttons Bay High was one of the first schools - and the only one in Leelanau County - to participate in Reaching and Teaching Struggling Learners, a program run by the Department of Education's Office of Special Education. It's aimed at making schools work better to accommodate student's needs.
The district continued the program with state support for three years, and now implements it on its own.
Suttons Bay is the most diverse district in Leelanau County with almost 50 percent minority students.
Many students graduate one or two semesters late, but the point is, they're graduating, Rittenhouse said. The ratings assume a normal graduation schedule of eight semesters - or 12 trimesters.
"I got a sense that we were on the right track," he said. "They don't stop at a diploma - they are the first to sign up for community college classes."
The Suttons Bay district doesn't worry so much about the statistics, but cares more about students who've been on the outside looking in, he said.
"It's just like when there are more restrictions on voting, less people show up to vote. We're trying to get rid of some restrictions on education and make it more flexible for the kids."
The high school has more than 300 students.
"We're structuring the school to meet the kids where they're at - trying not to set them up for failure," he said.
The district uses one-on-one and small-group tutoring and mentoring as well as afterschool and summer programs.
"They eat right out of your hands at-risk students are hungry for knowledge," Rittenhouse said.
He said those students have had crises in their lives that disrupted their education, making them victims of circumstance and the system.
Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count director at the Michigan League for Public Policy, said many factors are at play when it comes to graduation rates, including race and income.
She said Asian students tend to do better overall than white students, who do better than Hispanic students, who do better than black students.
Higher-income students usually do better because they tend to get more enhanced-learning opportunities including home access to the Internet, participation in extracurricular activities, books in the home and travel experiences, Zehnder-Merrell said.
The Michigan Merit Curriculum could also lower graduation rates, she said, because it requires students to take more difficult classes.
The proportion of students who didn't graduate on time statewide was 25 percent in 2009 and has hovered around there since, according to Kids Count. Wisconsin's rate was 9 percent in the same year. Ohio's was 20 percent, Illinois' was 22 percent and Indiana's matched Michigan's.
Donald Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said one reason Wisconsin's graduation rate is so much higher than Michigan's is that Milwaukee is that state's only large urban area. Graduation rates tend to be lower in such areas.
He said it's also difficult to track students when they move between districts or to another state, and sometimes a student who moves gets counted as a dropout.