Range schools show strong grad rates, but challenges loom

Education News

Last week, the state Department of Education released graduation rates for Minnesota high schools. Graduation rates across the state increased to 81 percent last spring, and also increased for all groups of students tracked by the state.

Here in Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range region, our rates were higher, often much more so. Here’s a rundown of what I’m calling “Iron Range” schools in Itasca and St. Louis Counties, which I gleaned from a very convenient Star Tribune database.

Cherry; 94.29%
Chisholm; 88.64%
Ely; 95.24%
Eveleth-Gilbert; 93.51%
Bigfork; 100%
Grand Rapids; 95.82%
Greenway; 95.31%
Hibbing; 89.31%
Message East; 91.07%
Mountain Iron-Buhl; 89.29%
Nashwauk-Keewatin; 87.18%
Northeast Range; 95.45%
North Woods; 93.75%
South Ridge; 82.61%
Virginia; 92.62%

The top two schools in the region both come out of District 318: Bigfork and Grand Rapids, respectively. I’ve not listed the alternative and charter schools because their situations are different, though it should be noted their grad rates are much lower.

In my time working as a journalist and college instructor in Hibbing I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of veteran or retired teachers from the storied Hibbing High School, the most expensive new high school in the country at the time of its construction in 1922. I’ve learned a lot from them, and their former students.

From the 1920s through the 1970s, Hibbing High School wasn’t just good; it was routinely considered one of Minnesota’s best high schools. New teachers weren’t just hired; they were recruited among the top graduates of teacher’s colleges. Success was not measured in school athletic team wins, but in remarkable college placement and professional degree attainment rates. It wasn’t a school, it was a church of upward economic mobility.

Hibbing’s graduation rates today are good; better than the state average, to be certain, but by no means remarkable. Other “big” Range schools like Grand Rapids and Virginia both post several percentage points above Hibbing.

A more concerning factor applies not just to Hibbing, but the whole region. In perusing this list of “Best Public High Schools in Minnesota” by K-12 Niche, one sees only two Iron Range schools in the top 100 Minnesota high schools: Ely (60) and Grand Rapids (64). K-12 Niche uses a methodology balancing test scores and grad rates with student and teacher surveys along with available activities for students.

I certainly don’t want to place too much emphasis on this one unproven source, nor do I think schools not named on this list are “bad.” Rather, I think it’s more a function that our schools are performing well, perhaps even above average on tested metrics but, in the holistic student experience, our Iron Range students seem to be getting less than they would have just 10 or 20 years ago.

We all know what happened to school enrollments after the Iron Range economic collapse of the 1980s. As I’ve written before, we’re just now realizing the full effect of that demographically devastating part of history. And here it is. We used to be great. Now we are fighting like hell to stay good.

It seems interesting to me that the two cities where we see those Top 100 schools, Ely and Grand Rapids, are both doing much more than an average Range town in the arts, tourism, and non-resource based economic development. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

A post like this will probably trigger defensiveness by those who see calls to action as criticism. Please understand I’m not picking on any particular school, nor am I discounting the wonderful things happening in each of these schools. But if I’m going to sit here and say that we face challenges to diversify our economy and improve our politics, we also face the challenge to strive for greatness, not just goodness, in our educational standing. I hold the same responsibility in my own work as a local community college instructor. I also believe parents hold responsibility for this, as well as teachers, students and community leaders.

Living in a fairly remote place with a volatile economy is difficult. Why on earth would it be worth doing? Our grandparents and great-grandparents demanded *the best* education for the children so they would have opportunity for the future. This social contract made Iron Range schools and communities worthy of admiration. We must not lose this hunger for greatness in education.


  1. There is a fascinating article about early 1900’s education, night schools and school systems on the iron ranges in the Feb 20 issue of Hometown Focus, “Lives Transformed: Education and the Iron Range. Mining taxes revenue built schools and public facilities “seldom equaled in settlements of similar size elsewhere in America”.

    An education on the Iron Range became a path to citizenship for immigrants from 43 different ethnic groups and a ticket out of the mines’ dangerous working conditions and frequent layoffs. School districts provided night schools teaching English and civics and hired doctors, nurses, dentists and social workers. Six junior colleges were opened between 1916 and 1937.

    Sirkka Tuomi Holm grew up in Virginia and attended a special 4 month English course for children of immigrants. Holm said the teacher must have been a genius because the children were of at least 12 different nationalities, none speaking English. About 125 immigrants per year graduated from the Hibbing area with their citizenship papers and a night school diploma.

    An amazing transformation in just a few decades.

  2. My children are graduates of a Range area school, just before the demographic slide in this area. They had a very good education and did extremely well in college and graduate school. They all mentioned types of classes that their college friends had that were not available to them. I believe that the small school experience gave them more leadership opportunities than they would have gotten in a large school. [I’m speaking as a graduate of the largest school in a five state area. Larger doesn’t guarantee a better experience, just more class choices.]

    But when the student numbers tanked, this school, as well as most in our area, dropped so many class choices as well as extra curricular. Then the fight about combining schools or school resources started. Old school view was to keep our old buildings and the mascots we grew up with. Vs Combine to survive, because we have really shrunken.

    Given the relatively small class sizes, I’d like to mention one caution about reading the statistics. One or two individuals who are doing poorly or dropping out will skew the percentages. The opposite also applies. One of my children had four truly gifted individuals in her class of less 40. That means that about 10% were gifted, and that is hardly something a school is responsible for. Likewise, in a small school, there are only one or two teachers per subject. A very good or very bad teacher impacts almost all the students. My adult children still give thanks for their junior high English teacher.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.