Stanislaus and Merced counties each lowered dropout rates 5 percent over the past two years. Merced lost 1 in 10 students in 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, while Stanislaus saw 1 in 7 fall between the cracks, the state average.
The change comes with a wide range of programs, some harnessing teens' social tendencies, others working one by one with struggling students to change their stars.
California Department of Education numbers show Modesto City high schools had 2,758 students graduate on time last year, 78 percent of those who started high school in 2008. That's up 3 percent from 2010, the first year California was able to track students by cohort.
Modesto schools also raised the numbers of students staying extra time to finish, lowering the dropout rate nearly 5 percent. Some 548 Modesto students dropped out of the Class of 2012, roughly 1 in 6.
Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able said the district has seen a nearly 10 percent rise in black graduation rates, now above the state average. Modesto instituted the Advanced Path Academy, extended summer school and longer school days to help students make up courses they failed, she said.
The district has added career-focused programs and beefed up FFA offerings to connect students to real-world skills and friends with similar interests. A mentor-style program to help kids without college-going families also helps, she said.
"The AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program continues to be a focus for Modesto City Schools. Schools like Modesto High are moving towards schoolwide AVID practices," Able said.
Some 46 percent of Modesto High grads fulfilled the University of California requirements for admission, the highest in the county. Pitman High in Turlock and Central Valley High in Ceres had more than 40 percent of their graduates ready for state universities.
Denair, Orestimba, Pitman shine
Denair High and Orestimba High in Newman had the highest graduation rates in the county: 99 percent and 98 percent, respectively. Coming in third was Pitman High in Turlock with a 95 percent graduation rate.
Waterford High reported a 90 percent graduation rate for three years running, said Waterford Unified School District Superintendent Don Davis.
All three schools outpace their districts' numbers, which include students sent to continuation campuses.
Denair Unified is an extreme case. While only one Denair High student missed graduation in 2012, 84 failed to graduate from the far larger Denair Charter Academy, which serves mainly at-risk teens from other districts. The combined total gave Denair Unified a grim 50 percent graduation rate overall.
DCA Principal Michelle Bush said the charter specializes in serving the needs of struggling students and those in difficult circumstances, earning state praise for its high graduation rates for teen mothers. Six out of eight seniors with children graduated this year, Bush said. Statewide, only half of young moms graduate.
The school offers counseling services, technical training and job placement help for graduates. "Each lesson is the setting for intense and personal one-on-one teacher-student interaction," she said.
In Merced County, Delhi Unified pared its dropout rate to the best in the region. Only 1.6 percent, or 1 in 62 students, dropped out of the Class of 2012, state numbers show.
The sprawling Merced Union High School District had 93 percent of its students graduate on time. Its dropout rate stands at an impressive 3.7 percent, or 1 in 27 students, a 10 percent drop in two years.
MUHSD Superintendent Scott Scambray said he promotes student participation in band, sports and other activities, using the teen desire for social connections as a way to keep them connected to school. That helped raise graduation rates, but was only part of the picture, he said.
"The main reason is our teachers have done a wonderful job of making the curriculum in all of our classes relevant," Scambray said.
California figures graduation rates based on those who get diplomas after four years. Dropout rates include teens who left school. Both rates miss students who stay in school a little longer, for second-chance programs or special education, and the tragic few who die during high school. Together, those add up to about 7 percent of Stanislaus County teens and 5.8 percent of Merced County students.