SPOKANE, Wash. – More Spokane Public Schools students donned their caps and gowns in 2017 than in years’ past.

About a decade ago, SPS’ graduation rates sat near the bottom of districts statewide. About four out of 10 students would drop out before they made it to graduation day.

In response, the district launched a number of initiatives and programs to keep students in school.

The ICAN program gives students the chance to make up skipped or failed classes, and get back on track to graduation.

Seniors Aaron O’Donnell was just one of dozens in the ICAN program. Without it, O’Donnell said he probably would not have been wearing a gap and gown this past weekend.

“I just felt so discouraged about it, feeling like I had been swamped with the work. And, I didn’t really have any person there to actually help me through,” said O’Donnell.

O’Donnell said the ICAN program made him get the one-on-one time with teachers that he needed.

Himo Bajramovic, O’Donnell’s classmate, was in a similar situation. He went from failing classes junior year to graduating senior year with college in his sights.

“I was like a year behind, and so I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m definitely going to have to work hard senior year,” said Bajramovic. “Oh, ICAN. It helped me a lot just because it gave me a second chance on all the classes I missed.”

ICAN is part virtual teaching and part in-person teaching. That is where Maegan Gomes comes in. She helps keep students accountable, cheer them on and help them find a new approach to learning.

“They come in and it’s on the computer, and so they can just go at their own pace, stop and take all the notes they want, re-watch stuff. So, it puts it a lot more in their hands,” said Gomes.

ICAN is just one of many programs instituted at Spokane Public Schools to try to get the graduation rate up, and it looks to be working.

In 2007, SPS had a 60% graduation rate. About a decade later, that jumped 26 points to 86%. In 2015, the nationwide graduation rate was 83%, while it was 78% in Washington.

SPS went from below national and state averages to slightly above. Still, though, SPS said they are far from finished.

Many different factors can contribute to high school dropout rates, including things outside of the classroom like poverty and family dynamics. But, SPS said they are pressing onward to keep the numbers climbing.

“Working with these students who don’t think school is for them, hate school, don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. To watch them find success, to find their path and then walk across that stage...it gets me going every day,” said Gomes.

In the next year, SPS will add more programs before and after school to engage students. They are implementing peer tutoring programs, partnering with parents and keeping a very close eye on 9th graders.