Effort to reduce Colorado dropout rate may get $1.5 million boost

When Kenneth Rufino started high school, he had recently arrived from Guatemala with no English skills. He got the educational boost he needed as a freshman at Aurora’s Gateway High School, and now he’s a junior with an eye on being a high school graduate.

State lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis want more Colorado ninth-graders to get that boost. The state House Education Committee approved a $1.5 million grant program Thursday that aims to help those students succeed. The House Bill 1276 still needs to pass the full House and the state Senate.

Research shows that when students struggle to start high school, they are more likely to fall behind and drop out of school. Polis has said reducing drop-out rates is a priority for him.

“That sense of ‘I can’t do it, what’s the point?’ starts in that ninth-grade year,” said state Rep. Bri Buentello, a Pueblo Democrat and teacher co-sponsoring the bill.

At Gateway, principal Mehran Ahmed uses his school budget to pay for extra support for freshman. That comes in the form of a structured program called Avid, a nonprofit that trains teachers to help students who may be the first in their family to attend college. Gateway is the only school in Aurora with an Avid program.

Teachers can pass on skills such as organizing, note taking, and advocacy to all students in the school. But Avid is an elective where students spend a class period receiving tutoring, going on field trips to colleges, or just talking.

Wednesday, some of those Avid students at Gateway told Polis and state lawmakers that such social and emotional support helps them the most.

“My counselor told me about the class,” Rufino said. “Said it was the perfect opportunity for you to start from zero.”

Rufino said it was difficult coming from another country and learning everything, including the language.

“I was lost at first,” he said. “They helped me when I struggled with classes.”

Gateway students said that when they needed someone to talk to, they went to their Avid teacher because they feel “safe” in his classroom. The same Avid teacher follows students as they move up a grade.

Gateway is one of three Aurora schools that have received the state’s lowest ratings for four years in a row. The State Board of Education on Thursday approved an external manager to work with the school, which is in the process of creating an improvement plan that includes a recommendation to reinvent freshman year.

Ahmed said he wants to restructure the first year as a freshman academy to allow all students to learn academic, social, and emotional skills that will help them self-regulate and be better students in subsequent years.

Results from the Avid program since it started at Gateway in 2015-16 shows things can improve, Ahmed said. In the last school year, for instance, all of the Avid seniors were accepted into college. Graduation rates at the school improved when the school started using Avid.

Having more money to support more students that way “would be huge for us,” he said.

Currently, about 120 students are in the elective Avid classes, but Ahmed said the strategies are spreading to the whole school.

When Gateway started training teachers to bring Avid to the school, Ahmed said the school spent about $25,000. In recent years, he has had to scale spending on Avid down to between $12,000 and $14,000, he said.

Officials said grant money could be used for programs like Avid, but could also be used for other programs, including, simply allowing schools to restructure their time so teachers have a common planning period where they track the progress of all ninth-graders.

“These programs are usually the first to get cut, and it’s frustrating,” Buentello said during the visit. “Avid should be just as much of a priority as English or math.”

When Polis asked Gateway students what they think freshman need to help them succeed, one student said it’s just about having someone there.

“You just need to know someone’s going to be there for you all the way,” said Nevaeh Bunton, a junior. “Not half-way, not a third. All the way.”

Sandra Fish contributed reporting to this story.