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Utah education leaders have good news for the new year: High school graduation rates are on a steady climb.

According to data from the State Office of Education, the Beehive State's graduation rate improved in 2012 to 78 percent from 76 percent in 2011.

"We're very happy to see the increase in the graduation rate," said Judy Park, state associate superintendent. "I think it's just the continued work that's going on in all of the schools and districts to improve the quality of education and reach out to kids."

In fact, since 2008, Utah's high school graduation rate has swelled by 9 percentage points.

Gaps, however, remain between the graduation rates of different ethnic groups. For example, 82 percent of white students graduated in 2012 compared with 60 percent of American Indian students.

But almost all the state's ethnic groups saw their rates rise, in some cases at a faster rate than the state as a whole, meaning such gaps may be narrowing. The graduation rate among Latino students rose 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2012 to 62 percent. Latinos are Utah's largest minority group, comprising 15.5 percent of all Utah students.

"Certainly we'd like to have 100 percent of our kids graduating," Park said, "but we're definitely moving in the right direction."

The new data comes about a month after the U.S. Department of Education released a preliminary report showing graduation rates for states across the country in 2011. All states were recently required to begin using the same formula to calculate their rates.

That report ranked Utah's graduation rate as higher than only 14 other states. But that report relied on graduation rates for 2011.

Utahns might not know how this new rate stacks up against others across the country for quite some time. But if all the other states' rates remained the same in 2012 as in 2011, Utah, with its 2 percentage point gain, would move up in the rankings, beating out 21 states.

Mark Bouchard, chairman of Prosperity 2020, a Utah business-led initiative to boost education, said the upward trend in Utah's rates bodes well for government and business leaders' goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by the year 2020.

Gov. Gary Herbert, business and education leaders throughout the state unveiled a plan in October to reach that goal and others.

"Our state has just fundamentally, in the last two-and-a-half to three years, really become centrally focused on education, from the legislative branch of government to the executive branch of government and the private sector in a way not seen before in our history," Bouchard said.

Along with statewide data, the state office also released graduation rate data for school districts and charter schools. As is often the case, school districts with the lowest graduation rates tended to serve high percentages of low-income families and face other challenges.

The Granite, Ogden, Salt Lake City and Uintah school districts had the lowest graduation rates in the state, when calculated from 10th to 12th grades. (The statewide rate is calculated from ninth to 12th grades, but about half of Utah high schools don't include ninth grades.) Granite's rate was 68 percent, Ogden's 66 percent, Salt Lake City's 67 percent and Uintah's 68 percent.

In the Salt Lake and Ogden districts, more than half of students receive free or reduced price meals because they come from low-income families. In the Granite district, about half of students receive the meals, and in the Uintah district nearly 40 percent of students do.

Those graduation rates, however, were an improvement over the year before in all four districts except Uintah.

Ben Horsley, a Granite spokesman, said the district faces a number of challenges, including poverty. He said the district is already working on strategies to boost its graduation rates, including changing Granger High from a 10th-12th grade high school to a four year school next school year and putting a stronger focus on seventh and eighth grades throughout the district. —

School district graduation rates

Graduation rates are up statewide and in a number of districts. Below are 2012 graduation rates, calculated using 10th through 12th grades, for some Utah districts:

Alpine • 78 percent

Canyons • 82 percent

Davis • 84 percent

Granite • 68 percent

Jordan • 82 percent

Murray • 83 percent

Ogden • 66 percent

Provo • 79 percent

Salt Lake • 67 percent