High school graduation rates in Nebraska continue to rise, with 88 percent of high school students graduating in a timely manner, according to a federal study released Monday.
That ranks the Cornhusker state second in the nation, according to the study.
The state's performance, second only to Iowa, was buoyed by a boost in graduation rates among students of color - including a significant rise among students with limited English proficiency.
Nebraska high schools graduated 64 percent of their students with limited English skills, a rise of 12 percent since the year before, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"We applaud the hard work of teachers and students," said Betty VanDeventer, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Education.
"However, our goal continues to graduate at least 90 percent of our students, so we will continue to strive toward that goal," she said, while acknowledging the challenges that remain to continue to boost graduation rates among all demographic groups.
Nebraska has a large population of refugees, many of them arriving with very little knowledge of reading, writing or speaking English. A high school diploma not only gives many of foreign-born students a concrete measure of accomplishment, but also provides the basic component for pursuing economic and educational opportunities.
The state is well above the national average in graduating its Hispanic students, ranking 11th nationally, with a 78 percent graduation rate, up four percentage points from the year before.
While Nebraska public high schools, which have nearly 90,000 students, have made great strides in narrowing the achievement gap between children of color and the state's mostly white population, there is clearly more work to do.
Nebraska ranked 37th in its graduation rate for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who graduated at a rate of 83 percent, according to rankings compiled by a consortium of advocacy groups.
Native Americans graduated at a rate of 67 percent, which placed the state 26th nationally.
And despite the spurt in graduation rates among students with limited English proficiency, Nebraska ranked 18th in the nation in LEP students.
Officials at the state's two largest school districts in Omaha and Lincoln declined to comment on the federal report.
Carolyn Rooker, executive director of Voices for Children, a Nebraska advocacy group based in Omaha, said that there is still "a long way to go to ensure all kids have the opportunities to grow into productive, healthy adults" and to address continued disparities.
"Children of color will represent a majority of children by 2018, and by 2030 the majority of the U.S. labor force will be people of color," Rooker said. "So we are literally in a race against time to implement strategies and make the necessary investments to ensure all children have the opportunities to thrive."
Nationally, the graduation rate edged past 80 percent for the first time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, prompting optimism among educators that schools are on the right track.
Although Nebraska trailed only Iowa, which had an 89 percent graduation rate, the Cornhusker state shared the runner-up position with Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin.
The center based its report on data from the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years, the latest national data available, and covers students who completed their freshman through senior years in the proscribed four years.
Bobby Caina Calvan is the lead reporter for the Heartland Project, an initiative to enhance news coverage of communities of color, as well as gay, lesbian and transgender issues, in Nebraska. The project is a collaboration of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.