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Colorado’s graduation rate up slightly

Colorado’s graduation rate nudged up nearly a percentage point to 74.6 percent this past spring, a slight increase led by stronger gains in some of the state’s largest school districts.

Jefferson County Public Schools and Denver Public Schools – the state’s largest districts – both saw increases in their graduation rates of just over 4 percent.

Among the state’s big districts – those with graduating classes of 900 students or more – the top gains were posted by Greeley, at 4.3 percent, and Loveland, at 4.6 percent.

“It is heartening to know schools in Colorado produced over a thousand more graduates last year than the year before,” said Education Commissioner Dwight Jones in a prepared statement. “That is a reflection of the hard work by students, teachers and administrators and it is commendable.

“But we know we must redouble our efforts to ensure more students are graduating with a high school diploma that is their ticket to success in the workforce or in college.”

The statewide graduation rate has hovered around 75 percent in each of the past three years, following a sharper drop from 80.1 percent in 2005 to 74.1 percent in 2006.

It was in 2006 that the first of several changes tightening Colorado calculates its graduation rate went into effect. Among them is a state law requiring schools to provide evidence that departing students are transferring to another school or program and shouldn’t be counted as dropping out.

Gender, race gaps persist

Colorado girls continue to graduate at higher rates than boys, a trend that has persisted for at least ten years.

In 2009, the gap was 6.6 percent, slightly smaller than in 2008 and 2007. Girls had a graduation rate of 78 percent in 2009, compared to a boys’ rate of 71.4 percent.

Among all ethnic groups, Hispanic students had the lowest graduation rate at 57.8 percent – or nearly 30 percentage points lower than the 85.7 percent graduation rate of Asian students, who had the highest graduation rate.

Hispanic students did see a 2.2 percent increase in their overall graduation rate in the Class of 2009. But that wasn’t as high as the 2.9 percent gain by Asian students or the 2.4 percent gain by American Indian students.

No ethnic groups saw declines in their graduation rate this year. The graduation rate for white students was 82.3 percent; for black students, it was 64.3 percent; for American Indian students, 59.9 percent.

Within every ethnic group, girls outperformed boys. The biggest gap – of 8.7 percent – was between African-American girls, with a graduation rate of 68.9 percent, and African-American boys, with a graduation rate of 60.2 percent.

The lowest graduation rate posted by any subgroup, though, was not a category of ethnicity or gender. It was income.

Among all subgroups, students qualifying for Title 1 assistance – meaning they were identified as at-risk – had the lowest graduation rate at 44.1 percent.

The subgroup with the highest graduation rate was students identified as gifted and talented, with a graduation rate of 91.6 percent.

Ups, downs in big districts

Since 2007, when the last of the graduation calculation changes went into effect, the state’s largest school district has seen growth in its graduation rate.

Jefferson County, with more than 85,000 students, graduated 81.3 percent of its Class of 2009, up from 76.1 percent in 2007.

Grand Junction’s rate also has climbed steadily, from 69.3 percent in 2007 to 73.8 percent in 2009.

Other districts, including Greeley and Denver, have followed the statewide average of slightly up in 2007, slightly down in 2008 and up again in 2009.

Greeley hit a graduation rate of 70 percent last spring, a high in the past three years.

District spokesman Roger Fiedler credits three initiatives with the overall growth, including the opening in fall 2009 of an alternative school that operating from morning to night.

The Greeley-Evans Alternative Program, known as GAP, is for students who have dropped out or were at risk of dropping out and who “needed a different atmosphere,” Fiedler said.

“It’s designed to offer students a combination of teacher-led instruction but also online instruction,” he said.

It’s smaller – capped at 75 students – and in its first year, 50 students finished their credits and earned diplomas.

Greeley also is offering online classes at comprehensive high schools so students missing credits can “catch up” and requiring all 9th-graders to take a “career and life choices” class to help their transition to high school.

“We know when students make that jump from middle school to high school, it can be a very challenging time,” Fiedler said. “So we’re making sure students coming in are given more support and have a softer landing.”

Other large districts are seeing less positive trends. Aurora’s graduation rate has declined nearly 10 percentage points, from 58.4 percent in 2007 to 48.5 percent in 2009. The Adams Five-Star district has seen its graduation rate decline from 76.3 percent to 68.2 percent in those same years.

Paying more attention to issue

Digging into the statewide numbers reveals some patterns.

Thirty Colorado high schools had 100 percent graduation rates in spring 2009. Nearly all were small rural schools in communities such as Agate, Kiowa and Edison.

Of the 30 with perfect attendance rates, The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs had the largest graduating class with 100 students. Most were far smaller – with 3, 8 or 10 graduates.

Sorting through the data in urban districts also shows just how far some have to go to reach state averages.

In Denver, with a poverty rate of 70 percent, fewer than half of the boys in the Class of 2009 graduated. The district’s graduation rate for American Indian boys was just 22.2 percent.

For Hispanics, the majority of students in DPS, the boys’ graduation rate was 40.8 percent – not a whole lot better than the district’s graduation rate for homeless students, at 36.8 percent.

But Denver’s overall numbers are up – and two who work closely with dropout issues in Colorado believe districts are paying more attention.

“We are seeing increased concern for this issue at the local level,” said Judith Martinez, a consultant with the Colorado Department of Education who leads the dropout prevention office.

She and Steve Dobo, founder and executive director of Colorado Youth for a Change, point to increased attendance at the state’s annual dropout summits. In October, 31 districts came to hear about efforts underway in six large districts.

“There is greater awareness of the high cost of dropping out – both the cost to the students in terms of reduced wages and unemployment and the cost to the community,” Martinez said.

She cited a study by the National Center for School Engagement showing one high school dropout will cost more than $200,000 in additional public support over a lifetime.

Dobo, who is working with six of the state’s largest districts on dropout prevention, focuses on three areas – recovery, or finding students who’ve dropped out and bringing them back to school, as well as intervention for those still in school and the creation of new schools.

“A lot of times districts do not have enough seats for dropouts to return to that are really a good fit for them,” he said. “They may have a lot of traditional high school seats but not a lot of smaller, alternative, charter, career-tech type programs.”

Dobo worries cuts in state school funding could mean less focus on dropout prevention. He tells districts that recovering dropouts is recovering dollars since state funding is based on student enrollment.

“This is a win-win with the district in that the work we’re doing is bringing or keeping revenue in the district,” Dobo said. “So I think some districts see that more clearly than others but we hope, in these times, that they will see that.”

Click on this link to see the state graduation rate report, including an explanation of how the rate is calculated and links to spreadsheets showing how schools and districts stacked up.

Click here to learn more about the Colorado Graduates Initiative, a statewide effort to improve graduation rates.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.