OGDEN -- Ben Lomond and Ogden high schools both increased their graduation rates from 2011 to 2012.
The size of the increase is either good or great, depending on how you measure it.
The state education system uses a cohort system that measures the number of graduates against the number of students who started 10th grade at the high school.
Students who leave the school and cannot be documented as starting school somewhere else are counted as nongraduating dropouts.
Using the cohort system, Ben Lomond High had a 78 percent graduation rate in 2011 and an 81 percent graduation rate this year. Under the same system, Ogden High had a 77 percent graduation rate in 2011 and an 89 percent graduation rate in 2012.
But the rates would be much higher if figured another way: counting students starting 12th grade at Ogden School District's regular high schools versus students collecting diplomas at year's end.
"In both cases, our graduation rate would be 98 percent-plus," said Brad Smith, OSD superintendent.
Of 307 students who started the 2011-2012 school year at Ogden High, 302 graduated. That rounds to 98.4 percent. And of 292 students who began last school year at Ben Lomond, 288 graduated, or 98.6 percent.
"We have questions about both numbers, and feel they are understated," Smith said of the state-figured cohort graduation percentages.
In fact, the principals of Ogden High, Ben Lomond High and the district's alternative school, Washington High School, addressed the Ogden School Board at its Thursday night meeting. All three said the state was using a larger cohort number than principals believed was accurate, thus lowering the percentage of graduates.
Sarah Roberts, Washington High principal, said the state had counted one student as a nongraduate who had never attended the school, but who may have registered then had a change of heart. Other discrepancies can result when a student has more than one state ID number, she said.
All three high school principals said they were working with state officials to determine why cohort numbers differed.
"Errors creep in, in a complicated system," Smith said. "We just count better than the state does," he added, with a laugh.
Judy Park, Utah State Office of Education associate superintendent, said any district is welcome to question numbers and request reassessment.
Park also said auditors stationed in the Utah State Office of Education go through district information to look for anomalies and for any inconsistencies based on information districts provided in previous years.
Smith said the bottom line, for him, is whether he sees improvement.
"It doesn't really matter to me what is being measured. I want to know the temperature, and I don't care if you tell me in Fahrenheit or Celsius as long as I understand what the numbers mean. What I am thrilled about is the 50 kids at Ogden High and the 48 or so at Ben Lomond who were not on track to graduate at the beginning of the school year who walked across that stage.
"There's an estimate that a student who doesn't graduate high school, over a lifetime, costs the country one or two million in health insurance, criminal issues and services," Smith said. "If that's true, we saved at least $100 million in helping those students graduate. And we had about 100 kids who won't have those problems, and that is huge, astonishing, beautiful."
Smith said he and his high school administrators and teachers started a program in January 2012 to help students at risk of not graduating to earn the grades and credits needed for a diploma. Smith asked each school to target 15 students who might not graduate without extra attention and help. At the end of each week, administrators at Ogden High and Ben Lomond High were required to submit a report to Smith on what had been done to help each targeted student, and what results had been achieved.
"What was miraculous and really shows the quality of the people in the schools is that the lists grew as the year went on," Smith said. "The schools were saying, 'There are more kids we can get across the line.' It was their own enthusiasm and vision of what was possible that became the driving force.
"As we got into May, you could sense the intensity of all the adults as the number of kids on the list grew. It was also fascinating that the list of adults working with each student grew. We were seeing the entire machinery of the school, the entire faculty, rally around these kids."
Smith said any credit for the improvement would have to be split many ways.
"These people at these two schools got behind this and made it happen. It was intense and it was great, and the feeling at our institute meeting this week was that we can do this again, and we can do more. And that is a feeling we haven't had for a long, long time."
Smith said graduation levels at the alternative school George Washington High, increased, but remain lower than the district's two comprehensive high schools. Washington High is transient by nature, with many students going there to deal with specific problems before returning to Ben Lomond or Ogden High, he said, so comparing rates would be unfair.
As for the district's traditional high schools, Smith predicts even higher graduation rates, even figured with the cohort system, for 2013.
"Both high schools made huge gains in one year, and we had people saying, 'It can't be done in two years, it can't be done in 10 years.' Well, with a whole school year to do it, we are going to reach the 90 percent goal with the class of 2013."