In one out of every seven Colorado high schools, half or fewer of the students who were supposed to make up the Class of 2018 graduated last year — and unless trends change dramatically, many of them never will.

An analysis by The Denver Post of data from the 2017-2018 school year found 81 Colorado high schools graduated no more than half of their students within four years. Thirty-eight of those schools still hadn’t graduated more than half of the Class of 2015 by the end of 2018. Even with GEDs included, 23 schools still don’t crack the 50-percent mark.

But state officials urged caution in blaming schools for low graduation rates. The majority are “alternative education campuses,” which serve students who already have dropped out once or are at risk of doing so, said Judith Martinez, director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-Engagement.

Because alternative schools serve a challenging population, the state grades them on their completion rate, which can include GEDs, Martinez said. Those where less than 67 percent of the class completes high school or its equivalent in seven years or less are offered more support under the federal performance framework, she said.

By the time students arrive in alternative schools, they typically already have fallen far behind their peers, making it more difficult to catch up. If schools want to increase graduation rates, they need to focus on laying a strong foundation with quality early childhood education, small class sizes and electives that keep students interested, said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of education leadership at California State University Sacramento. Unfortunately, many communities don’t have the resources to create that kind of system, and states haven’t provided the funding needed, he said.

“Education is cumulative,” Vasquez Heilig said. “When a kid comes in, they’re two or three grade levels behind, there’s no magic bullet to catch that kid up.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Students punch a timecard at the start of school, and also give up their cell phones, at Prairie Creek High School in Strasburg on April 3, 2019.

Hard to compare

Statewide in Colorado, about 81 percent of students completed high school in four years, and 86 percent completed it in seven in the most recent years with data, according to the Colorado State Department of Education.

Colorado funds a free public education up to age 21, so students could take up to seven years to earn a diploma. The issue is that most students who are behind on credits don’t see extending their high school career as an option, and decide to drop out instead, said Walter Haney, an education researcher at Boston College.

And once students have dropped out, most don’t come back. Out of roughly 10,000 Colorado students who drop out in a typical year, only about 3,000 go back to school before age 21, according to state data. Fewer than two-thirds of those who make the attempt end up graduating, though some may later earn a GED.

No one tracks how many schools nationwide graduate half or fewer of their students, so it’s difficult to know how Colorado compares. Graduation rates aren’t a perfect way to measure student achievement, because some schools will find ways to get kids who’ve fallen behind off their rolls, but a rate below 50 percent is “appalling,” Haney said.

“When kids do not graduate high school, they’re at a huge disadvantage socially and economically,” he said.

A different approach

Tony Cisneros, 20, is about to join the minority of students who finish high school after dropping out when he graduates from Prairie Creek High School in May. He said he struggled with bullying at Aurora Central High School and was homeless for a time.

“You’re not really worried about graduating when you’re thinking about, ‘Which way should I walk home so I don’t get jumped?’ ” he said.

Cisneros said he decided to try going back to school after a friend graduated from Prairie Creek, a tiny school housed in a few classrooms within Strasburg High School on the Eastern Plains. Only about one-third of Prairie Creek students graduated in four years, according to the most recent data, but 90 percent earned a diploma before they aged out of the public school system.

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Only two other alternative campuses, Pueblo City’s Paragon Learning Center and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, managed such a jump in their graduation rates.

Prairie Creek is unusual not only because it bucks the trend for alternative schools, but also for its approach to education. Students spend half the day in the classroom, where they study only two subjects at a time, and are expected to use their off hours for work or volunteerism.

Except on Wednesdays. On Wednesday, they practice yoga, talk about their feelings and maybe blow off a little steam playing “Lava Monster,” a tag-like game that involves climbing over the equipment at a nearby playground while avoiding the imaginary volcano below.

Tom Winter, dean of students at Prairie Creek, said the school was designed to combine academics, work and emotional support for students who aren’t on track to graduate. If students apply themselves in class and to the computerized lessons they do at home, they can earn four years of high school credit in two years, he said.

“You’re going to get the same caliber of diploma, it’s just delivered in a different way,” he said.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
A student gets back a book summary at Prairie Creek High School, a small alternative high school program, in Strasburg on April 3, 2019.

School climate

While Lava Monster may not become a classroom standard any time soon, education experts say that school districts need to pay attention to non-academic factors like students’ feelings about school if they want more to graduate.

Francesca López, associate dean of education psychology at the University of Arizona, said school climate is a major reason why students don’t persist to graduation. Youth are more likely to disengage from school if they feel their classes don’t have a place for them or treat them fairly, which unfortunately is a more common experience for students of color, she said. Most of the schools with low graduation rates serve more students from low-income families and students of color than the average school in Colorado.

“It’s not that students who drop out devalue education,” she said. “They reject an education process that has devalued them.”

A survey by the Colorado Department of Education found that students trying to earn their GEDs said the top reason they had dropped out was that they “did not like school,” though attendance problems, poor grades, conflict with teachers and a need to earn money also were common reasons.

Alternative routes

D. Jay Charles, 21, is pursuing a GED after he was expelled from Denver Public Schools for fighting and attended Colorado’s Finest High School of Choice, an alternative school in Englewood, and Colorado High School Charter, both of which graduate less than half of their students in four years.

Charles is enrolled in Mile High Youth Corps’ Youth Build program, which lets him earn a GED and a construction trade certificate at the same time. He said he likely wouldn’t have been able to stick with the program if it didn’t include hands-on work and if fellow students weren’t supportive.

“I would have ditched by lunch,” he said.

Jarelly Estrada, 18, didn’t drop out, but decided to pursue a GED through Futures Academy, a program where students can complete high school while enrolling in community college, instead of trying to catch up in a traditional school. She said people in the traditional education system assumed she had gotten in trouble or didn’t care about school.

“They don’t make us feel inferior here” at Futures, she said. “We have that bond and we have that trust.”

Estrada said she’d struggled with time management while attending school virtually through Colorado Connections Academy and Pikes Peak Online School, both of which graduate fewer than half of their students on time.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Thomas Winter, dean of students at Prairie Creek High School, plays a game of tag with rules prohibiting touching the ground in Strasburg on April 3, 2019. Prairie Creek’s program works with nontraditional students to help them graduate high school. On this particular day, the students walked to a nearby park and spent some time outside.

Different time frames

About a quarter of the schools with low four-year graduation rates were online programs, which is more than expected based on the number of online high schools in the state.

Charter schools also were overrepresented, accounting for about 15 percent of all schools where students could earn a diploma, but 30 percent of those with low four-year graduation rates. More than half of the charters with low graduation rates were also alternative schools, however, and three used the early college model, where students earn a diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.

The Post’s analysis found rural, suburban and urban schools all were on the list, though Denver Public Schools had more low-graduation schools than any other district. While that’s not surprising, since DPS contains about 10 percent of all high school buildings in the state, the district still was overrepresented, with about 17 percent of all low-graduation schools.

Nicole Veltzé, assistant superintendent for secondary education at Denver Public Schools, said eight of the 13 DPS schools with low rates were alternative campuses and five were charters. The alternative schools serve students in difficult situations, including kids who are behind on credits, young women who are pregnant or caring for children and students who are dealing with serious physical or mental health problems, she said.

Some schools also have GED preparation programs, so their low graduation rates don’t fully capture students’ achievements, Veltzé said. Across the district, about 70 percent of students graduate on time.

“Most of them do graduate, it’s just not in that four-year time frame,” she said. “The expectation is the same for all schools. The time frames might look different.”