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.

study says...

One big upside of career and tech programs? They push more kids to graduate

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at Aviation High School in Queens.

As a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, Shaun Dougherty noticed that students in career-focused programs seemed much more engaged than his other students.

Now a researcher, Dougherty set out to see whether data backed up his experience. Could the programs not just prepare students for the workforce, but keep students from dropping out of school?

To find out, Dougherty studied Massachusetts’ 36 vocational and technical high schools, where students alternate between academic coursework and full-time work in areas like auto repair, graphic design, and machine technology. What he found was striking: At those schools, students were substantially more likely to graduate high school than similar peers at typical high schools.

“The intention for CTE is to help with skill development for long-term career and earnings potential,” said Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut. “The fact that it’s having this payoff on high school graduation is a positive, but perhaps unintended, consequence.”

Career and technical programs can come with downsides, too — in particular, offering training in skills that may eventually become obsolete or devalued. But the new research bolsters the academic case for the programs, a rare education initiative that carries bipartisan imprimatur.

In the study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, Dougherty finds that the career and tech high school students came out far ahead of similar students on a number of metrics.

In addition to being 21 percentage points more likely to graduate high school, students from low-income families scored slightly higher on standardized tests. Graduation rates were also higher for higher-income students, though they did not see any test-score gains.

Those are encouraging results. Still, it’s possible that the students who chose to attend the vocational high schools were more motivated than their peers to begin with, skewing the results.

Dougherty addresses this by narrowing his lens to just three schools and using a different approach to nail down cause and effect. Using school admissions data, he compares students who just missed the cut-off to earn entry to students who just barely earned a spot — the idea being that the two groups of students are essentially identical.

Again, the results show that the career and technical schools notably increase the chances of graduating high school for both higher- and low-income students: by 7 to 10 percentage points and possibly more. In this case, there was no clear effect on test scores.

The approaches in tandem suggest Massachusetts’ career-focused high schools really do boost graduation rates.

That’s consistent with recent studies on career and tech programs in a variety of settings. Analyses of data from Philadelphia and Wake County, North Carolina found that students who randomly won a chance to attend a career-focused high school were more likely to graduate high school and attend college.  

Other research by Dougherty has found that students in Arkansas who took several career-focused courses in one focus area are more likely to graduate than similar students who don’t. And using national data, two other recent studies found that students who took more CTE courses, particularly later in high school, were also more likely to graduate on time, compared to demographically similar students. (Keep in mind, though, that these studies are less able to clearly isolate cause and effect.)

That research generally doesn’t show clear positive effects on math and reading test scores — but the students also don’t find negative effects, which to Dougherty is an encouraging sign.

“One of the classic concerns with vocational and technical education is that by specializing in an area of training you might be trading off general knowledge,” he said. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect their test scores to be higher, but we might worry that they would be lower.”

The reason for the career and technical schools’ particular success is unclear. It could be that CTE programs are particularly effective at boosting non-academic skills like grit — or that students benefit from peers all motivated to participate in the same program.

Dougherty suggests that students may benefit from being able to select a school or program that’s a good fit for them. He also points to the specific regional structure of CTE schools in Massachusetts, where the “learning environment may make learning more relevant and engaging, while simultaneously reducing the stigma associated with participating in CTE, and providing better mentorship opportunities.”

Still, Dougherty cautions that the positive finding doesn’t necessarily mean that policymakers should rush to expand the programs. One concern is that growing such offerings could actually train too many students for a small pool of specific jobs. Another is that it’s not clear what makes a high-quality program.

“I’m very skeptical that we know exactly how to scale it well,” Dougherty said.

career oriented

Newark looks to build school-to-work ‘pipeline’ by boosting vocational education

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Monique Baptiste-Good (left), vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, and Erin Sweeney, executive director of Schools That Can Newark, helped launch a new coalition devoted to expanding vocational education in Newark.

Newark has an employment problem — and the school district wants to help.

While more than half of jobs in the city pay more than $40,000 annually, just 10 percent of those jobs go to Newark residents. Instead, most Newarkers have lower-paying jobs, while about 8 percent are unemployed.

The mayor has targeted local employers, challenging them last year to hire 2,020 Newark residents by 2020. Now, the school system is focused on the other side of the equation: training workers. employees.

“We can hire more Newark residents,” said interim schools Superintendent Robert Gregory, “but we need to make sure that they’re prepared for the positions that they step into.”

To do that, Newark Public Schools is looking to strengthen and expand its vocational programs — also called “career and technical education,” or CTE — that provide students with in-demand job skills and sometimes even college credit by the time they graduate high school. Many Newark high schools advertise programs in fields ranging from carpentry and engineering to cosmetology and the performing arts, but some disappeared after teachers left and many are not recognized by the state.

Gregory said he wants to “revamp” the district’s vocational offerings so that there’s a “seamless pipeline” from schools to jobs — whether students choose to enter the workforce right after high school, attend college, or get specialized job training. To oversee the effort, the district recently brought on Chamiris Mantrana, a former teacher and vice principal at Technology High School who began her career as a chemical engineer. She said that, just a few years ago, vocational education got scant attention from the district.

“Then all of a sudden,” Mantrana said, “we’re back again.”

It won’t be easy to shore up the district’s vocational programs. Many schools struggle to find qualified teachers with up-to-date industry skills, and to offer programs matched to the demands of local employers. Meanwhile, the county-run vocational and technical, or “vo-tech,” schools offer selective programs that lure away many of the district’s top students.

To help navigate those challenges, the district has joined a new coalition of Newark industry and education leaders called the Newark CTE Network. The group, which hopes to steer more students into high-quality vocational programs, held its first meeting Monday.

It was founded after regional employers complained that they couldn’t find workers for “middle-skill” jobs — electricians, dental hygienists, or crane operators, for instance — that require specialized skills but not four-year college degrees, said Monique Baptiste-Good, vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, who co-founded the network with the nonprofit, Schools That Can Newark. At the same time, many schools are unsure what types of vocational programs to offer, Baptiste-Good added.

“Right now, a lot of institutions are just researching online,” she said. “There’s no reason for that when you’ve got industry leaders right here.”

The network’s inaugural meeting was held in the downtown offices of the Newark Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the city’s economic revitalization. About a dozen people gathered in a sixth-floor conference room including Mantrana, her counterparts at the county and the state education department, and representatives of local education-focused nonprofits and employers.

Most agreed that a top challenge is attracting qualified teachers, who must have a special CTE certificate issued by the state. Individuals who have studied or worked in certain industries can get provisional teaching certificates, but they must then undergo two years of classroom supervision and coursework to become fully certified.

Convincing skilled workers to switch to a lower-paid profession with a demanding certification process all to teach teenagers is not easy, several people said. Dicxiana Carbonell, assistant superintendent of the Essex County vo-tech district, which serves about 2,200 students across four high schools and adult-education programs, said she recently interviewed a prospective automotive-technology teacher. An automotive technician for BMW, the interviewee’s current salary topped $150,000.

“How do we compete with that?” she said.

The difficulty of finding qualified teachers can lead schools to offer vocational courses based on their teachers’ certifications, rather than employer demands. Gregory, the interim superintendent, said the district has “a lot of archaic CTE programs that are not mapped to current industries.”

And while several of the system’s roughly 15 high schools offer CTE classes in areas including dentistry, the performing arts, and telecommunications, only a handful have programs that meet the state’s stringent requirements, said Mantrana, who became the district’s special assistant for CTE earlier this year. (The requirements include at least three sequential courses, a combination of classroom and hands-on learning experiences, and a culminating skills assessment.)

The district is looking to create more state-approved programs, which would make them eligible to receive federal funding that could be used to buy updated equipment and curriculum materials. Officials want those programs to tap into local job markets. For instance, Gregory said, the district is launching a transportation and logistics program that could help prepare students to work at the nearby ports, which have been criticized for hiring few local workers.

To design the new programs, the district has turned to local universities such as Rutgers and New Jersey Institute of Technology. It has also partnered with the group Schools That Can Newark, a nonprofit focused on real-world learning.

A couple years ago, the group helped West Side High School build an advanced manufacturing program from scratch — a labor-intensive process that involved finding a curriculum, setting up mentoring and internship opportunities, and establishing an advisory committee with industry representatives.

Now the group is partnering with other high schools, advising the district on its CTE strategy, and helping lead the Newark CTE Network. Its goal is for every Newark high-school student to have the chance to take high-quality vocational classes that lead to well-paying jobs, said Erin Sweeney, the group’s executive director.

“You should have employers that are lined up,” she said, “ready to grab those kids when they graduate.”