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When the Colorado Department of Education released its data on graduation and dropout rates for the 2020-2021 school year1 last month, there was a lot for us here at Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC) to unpack. Colorado’s four-year graduation rate declined for the first time in a decade, a downturn that education experts across the state feared as students reel from the long-lasting effects of the pandemic. Grimly, Colorado’s graduation rate of 81.7 percent is the third lowest rate among the 26 states that have released their 2020-2021 data.2
On the other hand, the state’s aggregate dropout rate remained the same as the 2019-2020 school year; 1.8 percent of Colorado students left school early last year. For many, this was a relief; thought leaders across the state, CYC included,3 predicted a devastating increase in dropout rate due to COVID-19. An influx of students dropping out, at least, was averted. Or was it?
What the data shows
When you dig deeper into the state’s data, gaps in graduation and dropout rates amongst specific groups of students widen. CDE’s report includes data on students with limited English proficiency, economically disadvantaged students (qualifying for free or reduced lunch), migrant students, Title I students, and students experiencing homelessness. Students are placed into one or more of these categories, referred to as Instructional Program Service Types (IPSTs), by their schools. Two other IPSTs are students with disabilities and students categorized as gifted and talented. The dropout rates of students in one or more of the five categories first listed above, which we refer to as external hardships, were particularly alarming. These additional barriers to finishing school are significant amongst the students we serve. During the same school year, 18 percent of CYC students 14-21 were experiencing homelessness, and approximately 69 percent were economically disadvantaged.
Students in at least one of these five IPSTs recorded a significantly higher dropout rate: 3.3 percent vs. the state average of 1.8 percent.* The group’s average four-year graduation rate of 64.5 percent,* meanwhile, was far below the state average.
These are sobering statistics. But what does this data reveal about these students’ needs and possible solutions to this disparity?
Seeing the whole picture
Obviously, this group of students is the opposite of a monolith. The nature of the external hardships these students face means that each one of them has unique needs, challenges, and strengths. However, one common theme in success stories of students facing these hardships is their access to wraparound services. “Wraparound services” in this case refers to the collaboration of both schools/districts and outside organizations to provide holistic support and services to students for their lives inside and outside of school. It takes a village to achieve true wraparound success. CYC’s Reengagement and Corps for a Change programs provide wraparound services including academic and emotional support outside of the classroom as well as connections to community resources and opportunities.
But CYC’s interventions are not enough on their own; rather, students facing these hardships typically also need support in areas CYC does not address, such as food security, housing, legal services, and more. Schools and students must be willing to collaborate with outside organizations to foster support for this unique population. We simply cannot expect Colorado school districts to have the capacity to address these issues on their own, especially in light of schools’ both outsize responsibilities and depleted resources due to the pandemic.
“We value our partnerships with community organizations because our programs may not meet the needs of every young person,” said Monique Gallegos, CYC Manager of Reengagement Services. “For those who age out of our programs, request behavioral/mental health supports, or identify any other needs—we want to provide insight to outside organizations who can support them through their program. It is important that we build relationships with these outside organizations so that we may initiate a warm hand off and provide a direct person for a student to talk with instead of sharing a website or a number. It can be challenging for a young person to give a cold call to someone and not know what to say or how to ask for help.”
The gift of time
Another solution lies in giving these students more time. As the pandemic has caused overwhelming disruptions to daily life, many students are having a harder time prioritizing school. This causes them to fall behind and need more than the traditional four years to earn a diploma or complete a GED program. When students facing at least one of the five external hardships were given five years to graduate, their average graduation rate increased by almost 10 percent to 72.7 percent.
CYC seeks to capitalize on this trend through its Reengagement program. Reengagement staff perform outreach to students in Denver Public Schools and Englewood Schools who have been coded as having left school prior to completion; sometimes, these students have been out of school for more than a year. By taking these students’ unique barriers, goals, and situations into account and meeting with students individually, CYC and these students can together identify school or completion program options that are a better fit. Over the past three and a half years (including the 2021 fall semester), the Reengagement program has seen nearly 850 students reenroll in a school or completion program.
“Through reengagement, we identify, alongside a student or family, a program that best fits their needs, whether it is to support with language barriers, size, individualized needs, credit recovery and more,” said Gallegos. “There is a diverse population of needs including those of low socio-economic status, English language learners and more. In addition to the unique needs of students, we must keep in mind that they are navigating through a pandemic for most of their high school experience. Prior to the pandemic, students who start to fall behind may feel like they can’t catch up and give up on school. The pandemic has made falling behind much easier to do and as a result there is a need to give students more time.”
Students need support and services as unique as they are, especially when facing challenges that are out of their control.
For an extension of this discussion, we invite you to attend our next Colorado Reengagement Network webinar on February 23 from 12-1 p.m. MST. We will be discussing student mental health supports with a panel of school officials who are currently making a difference on the ground in their schools. You can register for this event here. We look forward to seeing you there!
*Calculated by averaging the unique dropout and graduation rates for each of the five populations. Because students may be part of more than one IPST, and CDE does not release individual IPST enrollment numbers without factoring for duplication, these numbers are an average.