Following national trends and building on years of growth, Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday reported a higher graduation rate for high school students in the last school year.

The CPS graduation rate has been climbing for the past decade except for one year, 2008, when numbers slipped slightly. For the 2013-14 school year, CPS said the five-year graduation rate for students was 69 percent, 4 points higher than in the previous year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted the numbers at an interfaith breakfast he attended with schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett at a church in the Archer Heights neighborhood. The mayor is facing re-election in February, and education figures to be a key issue, especially if Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis chooses to run.

"Two years, back-to-back, 4 percent graduation rate (increase). This wasn't a one-year fluke, a statistical error. This is a journey not to a single destination, though we do have a goal: a hundred percent college-ready, a hundred percent college-bound, no child left behind," Emanuel said to applause from a room full of faith leaders.

CPS officials said the 2013-14 school year's graduation rate "represents the largest two-year increase in district history." CPS' graduation rate, which covers five years, measures the percentage of students who entered ninth grade in fall 2009 and graduated this past summer.

Education experts say improved graduation rates are often the result of policy changes over a long period and that the federal No Child Left Behind law has led to higher graduation numbers at districts across the country.

A report released in April by the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education's research branch, found that the four-year graduation rate in the United States moved up slightly during the 2011-12 school year, to a historical high of 80 percent, up from 79 percent in the 2010-11 school year — the most recent figures available.

"We're seeing an upward trend in graduation rates over the last 10 years," said Christopher Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes the magazine Education Week. "One reason why we're seeing this is greater improvement in black and Latino students. We're seeing vast improvements at faster rates."

He said that with the federal reform efforts, schools became better at tracking students at risk of dropping out and identifying ways to keep them in school and graduating.

Earlier this year, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research reported that 82 percent of last year's CPS high school freshmen were on track to graduate, an increase of 25 percent from 2007, largely due to the district's efforts to decrease the number of ninth-graders failing courses.

CPS calculates its graduation rate by dividing the number of this year's graduates, 20,232, by the number of freshmen in the 2009-10 school year. The numbers are adjusted slightly to remove students who have died or been verified to have transferred out of the district.

The Illinois State Board of Education's graduation rate tracks students graduating in four years or less.

After the breakfast, Byrd-Bennett told reporters that to keep high school graduation rates going up, school officials will focus on getting elementary students well-prepared to start ninth grade.

"We also started last year and we're going to be expanding, we have an eighth-grade mentorship program so that each one of those children gets a significant adult attached to him for not only his academics but to keep him socially motivated to want to go to school," she said.

nahmed@tribune.com

jebyrne@tribune.com