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At Sheridan High School, an all-in approach to boost graduation rates

Sheridan High School English teacher Molly Gold, center, meets with students during class time.
Sheridan High School English teacher Molly Gold, center, meets with students during class time.
Nicholas Garcia

SHERIDAN — When Makayla Joe stopped showing up for school last year, one of her best friends begged her to return.

Joe’s friend, then a fellow junior at Sheridan High School, even threatened to stop attending class herself if Joe didn’t come back.

That didn’t make any sense to Joe. But the threat worked. Joe soon was back in her seat at Sheridan High where school administrators recruited her into a program that took her to a college campus last summer and showed her how to prepare for college.

“Everyone has motivated me to be my best,” Joe said, Tuesday. “They’ve shown me there is always another step for me to take to make myself a better person.”

It’s that sort of communal support — along with a growing variety of college-prep programs — that Sheridan School District officials point to as the driving force behind a doubling of its on-time graduation rate during the last three years.

In 2012, just three out of every 10 students who began high school in 2008 graduated from either Sheridan High or the district’s alternative high school, SOAR Academy. In 2014, six out of every 10 students who began high school in 2010 graduated from one of the tiny district’s high schools. (Sheridan High enrolled 377 students, most of whom are poor and Latino, during the 2013-14 school year. SOAR had just 147.)

According to 2014 graduation data released last week by the state, 80 percent of seniors who attended Sheridan High School, just south of Denver, completed their high school coursework in four years. That’s up from 60 percent the previous year.

“These numbers are a testament to what is happening at our high school,” said Michael Clough, Sheridan’s superintendent. “It’s also evidence of the quality of the learning coming up through our entire system.”

Sheridan has so few students that the graduation rate can move significantly with just a handful more students graduating on time. Each graduating class has fewer than 100 students. That means if the school graduates just a few more students than the year before, the numbers grow at a faster rate than at a larger school.

Talk to us
Chalkbeat’s question of the week asks: How complete a picture do you think graduation rates give us about what is happening in schools? Answer here.School officials have used the small student population to their advantage.

“We know all our kids,” said Michele Kelley, Sheridan High’s principal. “This is there safe haven. This is where they are getting their needs met.”

Among Sheridan High’s efforts to move more students toward college and career: an extended day that affords students an hour of intervention services if they fall behind, a redesign of the district’s summer school program, and a new elective that focuses on the academic and social skills students will need for college.

Sheridan High also requires students to take four years of math, including one taught by an instructor from a community college. Students must pass each math class with at least a 70 percent or repeat the course before they can graduate.

“The question we always ask ourselves is ‘does the student have the skills they need to do what they want to do?'” Kelley said. “If they don’t, they stay here.”

The school also partners with a variety of nonprofits and federal programs including College Summit, Upward Bound, and TRIO, to prepare them for college life.

Graduation rates in Colorado do come with a warning: Just because more students are graduating doesn’t mean they are all prepared for college or career. Individual school districts, not the state, determine the requirements for graduation. Those requirements can vary widely.

Other factors that illustrate the rigor of a high school’s course of study include the graduating class’ composite ACT score, the number of students who are eligible for and enroll in college courses while in high school, and their college remediation rates.

Sheridan’s graduating class of 2014 had a composite ACT score of 16.14, about three points behind the state average of 19.68. And it will be several years before the state will release either the number of Sheridan students who concurrently enrolled in a college course or how many students who needed remediation at a Colorado college.

However, Sheridan High officials said each year more high school students are becoming eligible to take college level courses.

Twenty-seven students, or about a fourth of the the graduating class of 2014, scored high enough on a third-party exam to be able to enroll in courses at Arapahoe Community College. Meanwhile, 39 students in the graduating class of 2015 have done so.

While the graduation numbers are accurate, Sheridan’s graduation rate — and whether it means more students are prepared for life after high school — is further complicated by an appeal the district made to the State Board of Education last year.

The district, which has been on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance and may face state interventions next year, asked the state board to reconsider the district’s accreditation rating, claiming the district’s schools were meeting the state’s expectations.

The crux of Sheridan’s argument last year was that it had students enrolled for a fifth, sixth or seventh year of high school who were concurrently enrolled at both its high school and Arapahoe Community College. Those students had met the qualifications for a standard diploma, but were seeking an advanced “21st Century Diploma” that required additional college courses. Sheridan officials believed those students should have counted toward its overall graduation rate.

The state board, taking the advice of CDE staff, disagreed.

Clough, the district’s superintendent, said his staff was working with CDE to ensure the advance diploma’s legitimacy and that for the time being, the community college is overseeing the district’s concurrent enrollment program.

Meanwhile, he said he’s hopeful the high school’s higher graduation rate will boost his district’s official rating enough next year to stave off the state from imposing sanctions.

“I’m a lot less worried about [the state] then I was a year ago,” Clough said.

The district will learn its next rating in the spring of 2016.

As for Joe, the senior who almost gave up her junior year, she hopes to attend Fort Lewis College after graduating to become a pharmacist.

But before she goes she has to finish one extra year of math.

“I want to be ready to go to college,” she said.

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