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Kentucky’s high-school graduation rate is among the highest in the country despite a poverty rate above the national average, according to a report by the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and Civic Enterprises, a Washington, D.C.-based policy center.

The report, “For All Kids, How Kentucky is Closing the High School Graduation Gap for Low-Income Students,” details the steady effort over the last quarter-century to improve Kentucky’s education system, making the Bluegrass State just one of six in the country that can boast a graduation rate for low-income students above the national average of 82.3 percent.

In 2014 Kentucky’s graduation rate was 87.5 percent, based on U.S. Department of Education data. That rate included graduation rates of 84 percent for low-income students and 91 percent for more affluent students.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Since 1980, Kentucky’s poverty rate has averaged 3- to 5-percentage points higher than the national average.
  • For the class of 2014, nearly 70 percent of the state’s school districts reported graduation rates of 90 percent or above; 27 percent of its districts graduated at least 80 percent of their students; and only 2 percent of the state’s 173 districts had graduation rates below 80 percent.
  • Low-income students graduate at unusually high rates in Kentucky, with more than 46 percent of districts graduating at least 90 percent and only 12.5 percent of districts graduating less than 80 percent. This compares to a national graduation rate of 74.6 percent for low-income students.
  • The half of Kentucky’s districts that are rural account for about one-third of all graduates in the class of 2014. Compared to other heavily rural states, Kentucky has the smallest gap between low-income and more affluent students for 2013 and 2014. Other states average a 20-percent gap.

The report looks in-depth at school districts in three regions: central Kentucky, covering Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort; Appalachia and eastern Kentucky, where unemployment is high and educational attainment low; and northern Kentucky, with a population that varies widely in income, demographics and graduation rates.

In northern Kentucky, the report examines the Covington Independent School District, which has the greatest percentage of black and Hispanic/Latino students in the area. The area is beset by poverty, homelessness and a disproportionate share of people with disabilities. The other case studies examine:

  • Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, with 100,600 students, the state’s largest;
  • Leslie County School District, with 1,600 students;
  • Owsley County Schools, with 728 students, nearly 40 percent of whom are from low-income homes; and
  • Floyd County Public Schools, with about 6,000 students and an impressive turnaround story.

Kentucky’s progress began more than 25 years ago when the state’s educational system was deemed unconstitutional based on an inequitable distribution of funds. Legislation created the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which prompted a coalition of businesses, the judicial system, state government and individuals to work toward establishing equity in school systems across the state.

“Over the last 25 years, citizens of all political stripes have built and sustained a culture and climate that are committed to achieving educational opportunity and advancement for all of Kentucky’s children, of all income levels,” said Joanna Hornig Fox, an author of the report. “The next challenge for Kentucky is to build on the same civic will to do the same for postsecondary education, building the state’s economy and the quality of individuals’ lives.”

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