The U.S. Secretary of Education recently recognized Alabama for having one of the nation’s steepest increases in high school graduation rates. Birmingham City Schools’ rate increased even more - up roughly 23 percent in the last four years. The latest data reported to the state education department puts the system’s rate at 79 percent - just below the national average. Regardless of that and larger questions about what the diplomas actually mean, having that piece of paper is helpful. For an NPR project, WBHM’s education reporter Dan Carsen sat down with James Hanks.