When students stop showing up to school in San Luis, school often shows up to them.
A district team that includes Principal Kimba Rael, the assistant principal, the restorative justice coach and a counselor head out to a student’s home if the student has been absent and is not responding to phone calls, or if they’re trying to meet with a parent to create an attendance plan.
And keeping the rest of the Centennial School District R-1’s 160 students on pace with school involves every staff member with a spare moment, including those who help run an alternative education program for just three students, including one teen who is dangerously close to dropping out.
“It’s hard to allocate the kind of human resources that are really needed to support these students when you’re talking about three students,” Rael said. “But those three students matter, and we have to find a way.”
Centennial School District is one of about 90 Colorado school districts where the dropout rate jumped in 2022, with the state’s overall dropout rate climbing by 0.4 percentage points from 2021 to 2.2%.
More than 10,500 students in grades 7-12 dropped out of school during the 2021-22 school year (the most recent year of data) while more than a quarter of Colorado kids, nearly 270,000 students in grades K-12, were chronically absent last year. The surge of students who have stopped showing up to school adds to the long list of worries for schools that are in the midst of trying to catch students up in school following COVID learning disruptions and support kids through a mental health crisis.
In Centennial School District, the dropout rate was 9.7% during the 2021-22 school year. It’s a significant percentage, but district leaders are quick to point out that in a small district where the graduating class has been no more than eight students in recent years, losing even one student dramatically changes the graduation rate.
State data shows that out of 103 students in grades 7-12 in the rural district during the 2021-22 school year, 10 were reported as dropping out. Sometimes, the district will enroll students who have dropped out of school in another district but end up dropping out of Centennial School District as well, Rael said.
“You want to give students a chance,” she said. “You don’t want to turn any student away knowing full well it may mean you wind up taking a hit to your dropout rate.”
Being in a tiny district also means that school leaders like Rael get to personally know students and the hardships that often compel them to leave school. She can recall students who struggled with drug addiction and faced homelessness. Another student became a mom at a young age and lacked transportation to school and a stable internet connection at home. She eventually quit school and moved to Mexico where her own mother lived, Rael said.
The jump in dropouts doesn’t come as a shock to Johann Liljengren, director of the Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement Office at the Colorado Department of Education — particularly as he has heard districts echo one another in the challenge to keep students engaged and as other states have seen a similar spike.
About 2,000 additional students quit compared with the year before, marking the first time since 2015 that the dropout rate increased after several years of progress, Liljengren said. But it also coincided with an increase in the state’s graduation rate — which was 82.3%, 0.6 percentage points higher than the previous school year — marking a complicated mix of good and bad news.
How is it possible for more students to graduate at the same time more are dropping out?
The data collected refers to two groups of students: Dropout data encompasses kids in grades 7-12. Meanwhile, the state measures graduation rates by looking over time at the number of kids they expect to graduate in a given year, mostly students who started ninth grade four years earlier, said Liljengren, whose office was established in 2009.
And, on the brighter side, the state’s graduation rate has inched in the right direction as many districts have doubled down on efforts to keep kids headed in the direction of graduation, using an influx of money through federal stimulus funds to roll out more tutoring and summer school programs, he added.
“They weren’t going to let the impacts of the disruptions change that for students,” Liljengren said.
Why are more students dropping out?
The country has made significant progress with graduating students as a high school diploma has become more critical to entering the workforce, according to Bob Balfanz, a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Around 2000, the national graduation rate was at about 72%, barely changing since the 1970s. That percentage jumped to almost 87% the year before the pandemic, Balfanz said.
Though the pandemic sent kids home to learn in 2020, the graduation rate didn’t take an immediate hit, Balfanz said, since most high school seniors that year had acquired enough credits to graduate by March when schools closed. The next year, however, the country’s graduation rate declined for the first time in more than a decade of progress.
The reasons students drop out of school vary widely, but most of the time schools can start to spot kids who may be at risk of taking a detour from the path to graduation, Liljengren said.
“Dropping out is not a one-time event,” he said. “There are very few kids who are looking fine in all of their data and then the next day are dropping out of school or the next month. So we’re oftentimes seeing warning signs months and sometimes years in advance.”
Student attendance and academic performance are two of the major predictors of whether a student will stick with school or drop out, he noted.
Some students quit school after falling behind in classes and buckle under the overwhelming pressure to catch up, Liljengren said.
“It gets harder and harder to keep up with classmates,” he said. “It gets harder and harder especially as we move into high school of staying on track. You feel like you’re falling behind. It’s harder and harder to stay engaged in that because you have missed key information, key learning before that. And it is in some ways easier to not reengage in that academic content than it is to try to push through.”
Life challenges outside school pull other kids away from their education, Liljengren added, including some students living in foster care who move around constantly and struggle to keep starting over. Others must work to help support their family.
Economic pressures during the pandemic and attractive entry-level jobs only made it more difficult for some students to stay on pace with their coursework and keep plodding toward graduation, Liljengren said.
“There were higher paying jobs for even someone without a high school diploma because there was such a need in hiring in those times,” he said. “So (schools) were having a harder time making the case to a student that you should come back and make sure you get your diploma when they were being offered positions because whatever (an) organization or company had was really pulling them in because they needed workers.”
And COVID isolated many kids, leading some to become detached from their school community, Liljengren said.
Balfanz, who has been studying dropout trends since 1996, said kids hit with repeated suspensions are more likely to drop out.
“Schools want to believe that a suspension is sort of like a grown-up kid’s timeout,” said Balfanz, who is also the director of the Everyone Graduates Center. “These are often murky, these decisions about who did what, where, who’s in the right, who’s not? Kids often feel like (they’re) basically shunning me, right? And that’s their interpretation. So if you’re telling me you don’t want me here, why do I want to be there?”
One of the most promising ways to prevent kids from being constantly absent and dropping out, Balfanz said, is to create a welcoming school climate, where kids feel connected with each other and their teachers. It’s also important that students have supportive classmates and participate in activities that feel meaningful.
“And they feel welcome for who they are,” Balfanz said. “They don’t have to (be) somebody else to be accepted.”
Schools can’t go it alone in helping kids get back on track
Centennial School District staff members stretch themselves to help students on the cusp of dropping out. That includes the principal, Rael, who oversees the San Luis Valley district’s alternative education program; a Spanish-speaking paraprofessional who runs that after-school program most weekdays; and the district’s kitchen manager, who besides cooking breakfast and lunch for students, drives a bus of kids home once tutoring is done and also manages a half-day of alternative education on Fridays.
The district does not have any staff designated solely to help students at risk of dropping out, Rael said, explaining “everyone is doing it as an add-on.”
District leaders have tried to enliven the alternative education program so that students can earn credit through work-based learning opportunities and learn practical life skills, including cooking, sewing, swimming and writing a resume.
The district — recently told by the state to create a turnaround plan, a directive for low-performing schools that Rael said the district is appealing — has also created an after-school tutoring program for students struggling academically. The district monitors grades of students starting in fifth grade weekly, and for every class in which a student’s grade slips below 70%, they can attend a day of after-school tutoring.
And district staff sign an attendance contract with families, with agreed-upon responsibilities for the student, their parents or caregivers and the district. For instance, the student might have to commit to arriving to classes on time and regularly checking in with a counselor, Rael said.
Both Centennial School District and Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1, in the state’s southwestern corner, consider bringing a family to court over truancy only as a last resort.
Superintendent Tom Burris, of Montezuma Cortez School District, has turned to the community in a broader effort to keep kids engaged in their education, throwing a “We Care Fair” in September to connect kids who were absent 30 to 50 days last year with community organizations and resources.
The district, where the dropout rate was 8.2% in 2022 with 110 of 1,336 students in grades 7-12 dropping out, is also planning a door-knocking campaign, enlisting business leaders and the clergy to volunteer to visit students’ homes and ask them what they need to get to school.
“If we have people that are their friends going, ‘Hey, how can I help you get to school? How can I support you at school?’” Burris said, “(then) our successes will be better. It’s all about making connections with kids.”
And making connections happens inside and outside the classroom.
At school, kids want a teacher who is “caring but still demanding” — someone who believes in them and also believes them when their life challenges get in the way of class, Balfanz said.
“To be connected to school,” he said, “you have to believe there’s an adult who knows and cares about you as a person, not just like, it’s my job to teach you English and give you a grade. I have an actual relationship with you.”