This spring at Monticello High in the rural southeastern corner of Utah — a tiny school surrounded by redrock buttes and remote desert — every senior student enrolled there graduated.

It’s the first time that anyone can remember that happening. It’s a major accomplishment for any school in the state, let alone one with less than 300 students total, in one of the most impoverished counties and a five-hour drive from the capital.

“I’m thrilled, excited, ecstatic,” exclaimed Principal KC Olson, who said it was a little unexpected. “We’ve come close before. Now we’ve made it.”

The state released 2019 graduation rates for Utah high schools Monday, showing the statewide rate increased slightly, to 87.4%, as 43,000 students earned their diplomas.

Monticello High is one of only 14 to have 100% of its seniors get their diplomas. Last year, 10 schools did.

It also exemplifies a growing trend where many rural schools here are seeing their graduation rates improve — and quickly.

Gunnison Valley High in South Sanpete School District, for instance, similarly jumped from 90% to 95% this year. Parowan High School in Iron County is at 98%. Beaver High is at 88.3%.

And Juab School District in west-central Utah, as a whole, is at 97% for all of its 165 seniors — the highest average for any school district in the state.

In fact, with all of the rural districts combined, the average graduation rate was 88.7%. That’s more than 2 percentage points above the average for all urban districts.

“We’re definitely going to attempt to make this the trend,” Olson said, “and hope we make the list next year, too.”

He credits the change to an increased focus from the state on assisting rural schools — which educate about 15% of students statewide — including with grant money and college partnerships. He also said Monticello High has teachers who care and students who want to achieve. Some of the recent graduates, he added, wanted to go to bigger universities in Utah, such at the University of Utah or Utah Valley University, and worked toward that.

The high school in San Juan County went from a graduation rate of about 90% in 2018 to having all 44 of its seniors complete the required coursework this spring. No other standard public high school in the urban areas of the state matched that.

Pinnacle Canyon Academy in Price also was one of the schools that had a 100% graduation rate. The director of the charter did not immediately return a call Monday.

Many of others that were in the top 14 were not disclosed by the board of education because they have fewer than 10 students and the state protects their privacy. But most were also charter schools.

The statewide growth, from the 87% graduation rate in 2018 to 2019′s 87.4%, is steady but slow. There’s been a hike of about 3% over the last five years, and a small increase every year for at least the past seven.

“It’s still good news,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the board of education. “The trajectory continues to be good.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The data behind the jump suggests that gains made mostly by American Indian students and those considered “economically disadvantaged” are to thank for 2019′s increase.

“We’re narrowing the gap and it’s narrowing the right way,” Peterson added.

Monticello High also proves that finding, in part. About 5% of the school is American Indian students. And in San Juan School District, as a whole, about 50% are — with the majority being Navajo or Diné, and the Navajo Nation sitting in the southeast corner of the county. It’s the only district where that majority exists, and 93.8% of the seniors there graduated this spring.

Statewide, the overall graduation rate for American Indian students increased the highest for any minority group, jumping 2.3% from 77% last year to 79.3% in 2019.

Harold Foster, the American Indian specialist for the Utah Board of Education, believes the district and Monticello High have worked especially hard to build support programs for Native students. They’ve bought books written by indigenous authors for their libraries, for one thing.

“It’s a tribute to the school districts and the teachers and administration there,” he said. “They’re doing very, very well. A lot of pieces to this is the culture of these American Indian students. If they have the support and they have everything lined up with their education goals, the parent participation, these kids can excel.”

American Indian students in Utah still fall toward the bottom of the pack, demographically, completing high school just above black students at 74.8% (which fell a bit from 2018). But the group is catching up to Latino students at 79.5%. White and Asian students continue to take the top spots at 89.7% and 91.4%.

Meanwhile, those who are economically disadvantaged also made major gains this year. Now, 77.3% of those students graduate. That’s a 2.4% increase from 2018.

At Monticello High, all 282 students there fall in that category. But with all seniors graduating, they helped bump up the rate for state completion for those in lower income brackets.

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said: “We’re proud of the efforts of our educators in helping more students graduate and applaud those who reached the 100% mark.”

Olson said at his school it has been a “team effort” among teachers, students and parents to get everyone across the finish line and holding a diploma.