Pomp and Circumstance

The U.S. graduation rate is at an all time high. But Colorado’s rate still lags far behind.

PHOTO: Photo by David Armstrong via Flikr

Colorado’s high school graduation rate ranks as the seventh lowest in the country, according to data released Monday.

President Obama celebrated a record-breaking national on-time high school graduation rate. Data released by the U.S. Department of Education shows that 83.2 percent of students graduated on time during the 2014-15 school year. That’s up almost 1 percentage point over the previous year.

Colorado’s on-time graduation rate was 77.3 percent, which was unchanged from the previous school year. Colorado’s graduation rate had grown steadily for the previous eight years.

Colorado officials like to point out that the state’s five-year graduation rate is much higher, at nearly 82 percent. And in 2015, 78 percent of the state’s school districts had graduation rates higher than 80 percent.

“We’re committed to all students getting across the finish line,” said Judith Martinez, director of dropout prevention and student re-engagement at the state education department. “For some students it takes longer.”

Colorado high schools offer a variety of programs that can keep students in high school for five years, including ASCENT, which allows students to earn college credit for free. Students who are learning English as a second language, a fast growing demographic in Colorado, and those learning with disabilities, also have access to additional learning for a fifth year, Martinez said.

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Forty-six percent of students who did not graduate in 2015 were still enrolled in their high school, Martinez said.

Another possible reason for Colorado’s low graduation rate, Martinez said, is that students who transfer in between school districts during high school often face different graduation requirements. Unlike most other states, Colorado leaves graduation requirements to local school districts. That means if a student moves from Aurora to Westminster during their high school year, they can be asked to fulfill different requirements and courses they took in Aurora might not count toward graduation in Westminster.

Colorado high schools are in the process of adopting more universal graduation requirements. The State Board of Education last year, released a new “menu” of options for schools to use to shape their own graduation guidelines. The new requirements should be in place by 2020.

finishing high school

Colorado’s graduation rate hits six-year high, with both big spikes and declines in metro Denver

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado’s four-year high school graduation rate reached a six-year high last year, with some metro Denver districts that serve at-risk students showing marked improvement and others taking steps back.

The on-time graduation rate for the class of 2016 was 78.9 percent, according to data released Thursday by the state education department. That’s a 1.6 percentage point jump from the previous year.

The state’s dropout rate also improved, falling by 0.2 percentage points. All told, 584 fewer students dropped out in 2015-16 than in the previous school year.

The state’s graduation gap between students of color and white students also narrowed slightly for the sixth consecutive year. The four-year graduation rate for students of color was 71.9 percent, an increase of 1.7 percentage points from last year. The graduation rate for white students in 2016 was 84.4 percent.

“The news is encouraging for the state and shows the continued dedicated commitment of students, parents, teachers and school staff,” Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement. “It is motivating that we are moving in the right direction as we all strive to have students graduate prepared for life after high school, whether that is in college or careers.”

Around the metro area, some school districts saw significant increases in their graduation rates.

Mapleton Public Schools, a district serving more than 8,000 students north of Denver, had the largest jump, posting a 64.6 percent on-time graduation in 2016, up from 57.1 percent in 2015.

Aurora, a school district that is struggling to improve before potentially facing state sanctions in another year, also made a significant jump — graduating 65 percent of their students in 2016, up from 59 percent in 2015.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn attributed his district’s gain to its new strategic plan, which requires each student to have a plan to graduate.

“If students take ownerships over their own success, there are higher levels of engagement and higher levels of success,” he said.

High schools in Aurora have also been rethinking how they keep students from dropping out. For example, at Hinkley High, students have the option of enrolling in a computer-based night school.

“I can tell you, there are no tricks,” Munn said, who added the district’s rate has steadily increased 20 points since 2010. “It’s been pushing a large rock up a hill. Not one magical jump.”

The graduation rates in both districts, despite the improvements still lag behind the state average and larger metro school districts like those in Denver and Jefferson counties. Jeffco Public Schools posted a graduation rate of 82.8 percent, virtually unchanged from the 82.9 percent in 2015. Denver’s graduation rate for 2016 is 67.2 percent, meanwhile, is up from 64.8 percent.

DPS officials celebrated their improved numbers at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, a kindergarten through 12th school in southwest Denver that posted a 100 percent on-time graduation rate last year and had zero dropouts. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg hailed it as a “shining example,” a formerly struggling school reborn after being put on turnaround status.

Since the state changed the way it tracks graduation rates eight years ago, DPS’ four-year graduation rate has grown 70 percent, Boasberg said.

The graduation rates at another metro area district, Englewood Public Schools, climbed from 47 percent in 2015 to 54 percent in 2017. Diana Zakhem, the district’s director of postsecondary and workforce readiness, said the district has been working on improving graduation rates for years.

“It really is a combination of a lot of different things,” Zakhem said. “Focusing on student engagement, relevancy and relationships with them — all of those things have helped and contributed. It’s not just one thing that happens over one school year.”

The work at Englewood schools includes new career and technical courses including one in hospitality and culinary arts, an increase in the number of high school counselors paid for by grants, and work with a nonprofit that has a dedicated staff person tasked with finding students that do drop out to get them back in school.

Two metro area school districts, Sheridan and Westminster saw declines in their graduation rates.

Westminster, a school district that after one last appeal could become the first this year to lose accreditation because of chronic low performance, had a graduation rate of 56.3 percent, down from 59.4 percent in 2015.

Oliver Grenham, chief education officer for Westminster Public Schools said the district is not concerned with the four-year rate. Although just 56.3 percent of students in the district graduated after four years, another 190 students, or 27 percent, are still enrolled in the district.

“The number is not a surprise, in fact it’s what you would expect to see in a true Competency Based System where the goal is to ensure that a high school diploma has real value,” Grenham said of the four-year rate.

“We are pleased with our five- and six-year graduation rates because they show that our students who enter high school behind their peers are staying in school and learning what they need to know,” he said. “As a district, we would have a much higher graduation rate if we let students walk across the stage with a D average, but that would be a disservice to them and our community. Yes, more students would graduate in four years, but they would not be prepared for the future. We are not interested in playing the numbers game.”

The Sheridan School District just south and west of Denver had a 69.1 percent graduation rate, down from 75.9 percent in 2015.

The tiny Sheridan district this year jumped off the state’s accountability clock for low performance. Depending on how it fares 0n other measures, the decline in graduation rates could put the district on the state watch list again.

Pathway to college

For Tennessee high school students, free community college isn’t about the money. It’s about the branding.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Josue Flores is a freshman at Southwest Community College. He credits the straightforward path of Tennessee Promise for helping him continue his education after graduating in 2016 from Cordova High School.

Josue Flores credits Tennessee’s free community college program for allowing him to continue his education after graduating from Cordova High School last spring, only three years after immigrating to the United States.

But it wasn’t just the money. The state doesn’t actually pay for Flores’ education because federal grants cover his tuition at Southwest Community College in Memphis.

More important has been the straightforward “promise” of the Tennessee Promise scholarship. The program guarantees that Flores can go to college for two years for free if he follows a simple step-by-step checklist.

High-achieving students across income levels still overwhelmingly opt to attend four-year programs. But state education officials and school counselors say Tennessee Promise has energized the conversation around college for many other students.

“Once they hear ‘free,’ they perk up,” says Ellen Houston, a counselor at Nashville’s Glencliff High School. “There are definitely kids who wouldn’t have continued their education (without it).”

Before Tennessee Promise, free college initiatives existed on a much smaller scale, and were typically privately funded. In Tennessee, the seed was planted by a program called Knox Achieves, started in 2008 when Gov. Bill Haslam was mayor of Knoxville. That attracted more philanthropic funding and morphed into tnAchieves, which served students across the state.

Tennessee Promise launched in 2014 and is still too young for conclusive academic studies. But it’s the first statewide program of its kind and already is viewed as an exemplar as more states, recently including New York, move to increase college access. Research on Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise, the nation’s oldest free college program, suggests that the promise of free higher education positively changes the culture in high schools.

Unlike the Kalamazoo program, Tennessee Promise only applies to community and technical colleges. It’s a “last dollar” scholarship, meaning that it covers only what federal aid does not, using revenue from the state’s lottery. Of more than 16,000 Tennessee Promise students who graduated last year from high school, 53 percent, including Flores, qualified for Pell grants, which are worth up to $5,082 each year.

There’s no grade cutoff, and the requirements are fairly straightforward. Students must be documented residents of Tennessee. They must meet clear deadlines for attending informational meetings, filling out the federal aid form called the FAFSA, and completing eight hours of community service each year.

The program’s simplicity made it a perfect fit for Flores. When he moved to the United States from El Salvador three years ago, his sole focus was to learn English. Then he started to look at college. But finding a way to pay for it was daunting.

“I started to look for scholarships, and the system was completely different (from El Salvador),” he recalls.

He heard about Tennessee Promise from his classmates. He liked the structure of the scholarship program — and the guarantee of an award if he jumped through all the hoops. “It was a blessing,” he said. “There were definite steps to take so I could definitely get it. This was for sure.”

Because a FAFSA application is required for Tennessee Promise, students who previously might not have known or bothered to complete one are getting it done. That, along with Tennessee’s Hope Scholarship, a last-dollar grant with a GPA requirement, have made Tennessee the No. 1 state in FAFSA completion for two years running.

“Before it was, ‘Hey, fill out this horrible form called the FAFSA. You might get to school for free. Now we can say, if you follow these guidelines, you will get to go for free,” says Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

From the beginning, architects of Tennessee Promise knew that messaging would be almost as important as the actual money, according to Krause, who spearheaded the program as part of Haslam’s Drive to 55 college-going initiative.

So far, Krause and other state leaders consider Tennessee Promise a success. The state’s college-going rate among recent high school graduates has jumped 4.6 percentage points since 2014, to 62.5 percent, and retention rates at community colleges have increased, suggesting that students who start college with the program stick with it.

The true test will be if students like Flores are able to get the kinds of good-paying jobs they want.

Flores, for one, is optimistic. He just started his second semester at Southwest and has set his eyes toward obtaining a nursing degree at the University of Memphis. That would get him one step closer to his childhood dream of working in the medical field.

“Nothing is impossible,” he says, “but without (Tennessee Promise) it would have been a lot tougher.”