MORGANTOWN -- New state Department of Education data show high school graduation rates have improved steadily for five years in West Virginia, jumping 8.5 percent since the fall of 2008.
Officials credit a variety of retention and alternative-education programs in public schools, as well as an anti-truancy initiative the state Supreme Court launched in 2012.
The state's figures show that 79.3 percent of seniors graduated during the 2012-13 school year, up from 70.8 percent in 2008-09.
"It's working," Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis said Wednesday, crediting circuit court judges for embracing a program that holds parents and caregivers accountable when children miss too much school. Some counties have even hired probation officers specifically to deal with truancy, she said, "and in the counties that have done that, the truancy rate has dramatically increased and graduation rates have dramatically increased."
Davis, who traveled to all 55 counties to focus attention on the problem, says eight of 10 people sitting in jail or prison are high school dropouts. Dropouts have a harder time finding jobs, often resorting to crime to get by.
Experts say truancy also increases the risk of drug and alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy.
"We either solve it - starting in preschool and kindergarten and planting the seed there - or we end up paying for it as a society, building jails and prisons," Davis said. "That's a no-brainer to me."
The smaller the high school, the more dramatic the change can be from one year to the next.
Recent graduation-rate declines of 21.3 percent in Morgan County, 17.6 percent in Doddridge County and 10.2 percent in Clay County, for example, were skewed by just a few students, said state attendance officer Becky Derenge.
That also happens with huge increases, like the 12.2 percent improvement at Tug Valley High in Mingo County, an 11.9 percent increase at Ripley High in Jackson County and an 11.7 percent improvement at tiny Hundred High in Wetzel County.
What's important, Derenge said, is the overall positive trend.
The courts' involvement has spread a message that educators have championed for years.
"Sometimes you can't be a prophet in your own land," she said.
But Derenge credits other factors, too.