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Falling grad rate adds urgency to turnaround efforts

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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service


Arizona school districts and nonprofit organizations are using nationally proven strategies and innovative practices in their efforts to turnaround a high school graduation rate that has declined in Arizona for three years in a row, notably among low-income and minority students, who are a majority of the state’s school-age population.

Falling grad rate adds urgency to turnaround efforts GraduationRateStoryHighlightsArizona is one of only four states whose four-year adjusted cohort graduation rates have declined for the past three years that statistics are available, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“We need to begin by having tough conversations about the struggles faced by students, particularly low-income and minority students in our state,” said Rich Nickel, president and CEO of College Success Arizona. “Including students in those conversations is key to determining the supports they require for success. Once those supports are identified, we need to move forward with a collaborative approach to putting an end to students dropping out of high school and college.”

In Arizona, 16 percent of students are racial minorities, 45 percent of students are Latino and 43.9 percent of students receive free- or reduced-lunch, an indicator of low income, according to the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Annual Report 2012-13 and the Food Research and Action Center’s June 2013 report “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2013.”

Falling grad rate adds urgency to turnaround efforts CalculatingTheGraduationRateFrom 2010-11 to 2012-13, Arizona graduation rates declined three percent for all students, fell five percent for disabled students as well as limited English proficient students, and dropped four percent for economically disadvantaged students.

Arizona graduation rates for students by race/ethnicity were all below the national average for those groups. Over the past three years for which statistics are available, graduation rates dropped four percent for African-American students, three percent for Asian students as well as Hispanic students, declined two percent for White students, and one percent for Native American students.

Latinos represent the fastest growing segment of Arizona’s population, and Latino K-12 students are the majority in Arizona, yet Latino students trail their White peers in almost every education assessment category, including high school graduation rates, according to Helios Education Foundation.

What is Arizona doing to increase graduation rates?

Nonprofits, businesses and community organizations are working together with educators to reverse this trend.

To help boost graduation rates, College Success Arizona is partnering with many groups throughout the state through its Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN), Nickel said.

“AzCAN members work in collaboration throughout the state to improve the high school and college graduation rates of low-income students, minority students and students with disabilities,” Nickel said. “Programs include student ambassadors through Tucson’s Regional College Access Center, Jobs for Arizona’s Graduates (JAG), Elevate Phoenix, Nizhoni Academy and many others.”

Within the AZCAN network, in-school and out-of-school programs focus on both high school and college attainment through wraparound supports, Nickel said.

“These supports help students graduate high school with the knowledge and skills necessary to be college and career ready, setting them on a path to lifetime success,” Nickel said.

Limited English Proficient Students

In response to low graduation rates for English language learners, Arizona education leaders earlier this year approved optional changes to the standard four-hour block of intensive English instruction in reading, writing, grammar and conversation that public schools could use to increase English language learner’s academic growth and also boost high school graduation rates

The approved refinements to the Structured English Immersion model would allow local education agencies beginning in the 2015-16 school year to reduce daily ELL hours from four to two for students who demonstrate intermediate level proficiency on the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment (AZELLA) and who are in at least their second year of English Language Development instruction.

Similar alternative models in Glendale Union and Phoenix Union high schools have helped ELL students who have scored proficient in reading and writing, by keeping them in “two-hour model and the other two hours they’re in an English block to earn credit for graduation,” said Evie Cortés-Pletenik, curriculum director for language acquisition for Phoenix Union High School.

To meet the state requirement of 22 credits to graduate, Phoenix Union’s 1,200 ELL students often use the district’s concept, credit recovery, evening classes, online courses and free summer school, Pletenik said.

Increased academic support

Many Arizona high schools are offering increased academic support for students and online options to earn the credits for their diploma.

Maricopa High School in Pinal County is doing several things to improve the graduation rate, said Steve Chestnut, superintendent of Maricopa Unified School District in an article on

Falling grad rate adds urgency to turnaround efforts GraduationHP“For the past two years we have offered additional remedial math classes at MHS to assist students,” Chestnut said in the article. “Two years ago we began working with the company Graduation Alliance. This company reconnects with MHS dropouts and enrolls them in an online program so they can complete their MHS diplomas. We have had three students earn their diplomas with Graduation Alliance, and one student has completed a GED.”

In Tucson, Pima Vocational High School is helping students who have dropped out of other traditional schools graduate by “providing a supportive atmosphere, youth specialists that work around the students’ obstacles and a low student-teacher ratio,” according to a NBC News 4 Tucson KVOA story.

Many Pima Vocational High School students are homeless and some are parents themselves, said school director Michele Heimpel.

“We want the kids the other schools have thrown away,” Heimpel said. “Those are the students we want because we know that in a very structured, welcoming environment they can learn. They can be successful.”

What’s working nationally?

These Arizona efforts are similar to what’s working nationally to increase the number of high school students earning their diplomas in four years.

Graduation rates nationally are not increasing because of broad national economic, demographic or social trends, but from leadership, reforms and multi-sector efforts at state, district and school levels, according to the “2015 Building a Grad Nation Report: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic.”

Raising graduation rates for students who have traditionally struggled to earn a high school diploma have driven the gains in the national high school graduation rate, according to the Grad Nation 2015 report.

These efforts have put the nation on pace to meet the goal of a 90 percent on-time high school graduation rate by 2020, according to the Grad Nation report.

Additional ideas

Other steps schools can take to help increase students high school graduation rate are described in the recent Grad Nation report. Among these recommendations are:

  • Eradicate zero-tolerance discipline policies since students who are expelled or suspended become far more likely to drop out of school completely.
  • Expand the use of early-warning indicators so educators can intervene at the earliest and most critical times to help students succeed.
  • Make state funding more equitable so low-income students have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers.
  • Establish a standard diploma that is available to all students, which limits exit options that prematurely take students with disabilities off track to graduating on time with a standard diploma.
  • Increase the use of consistent and comparable data that holds states accountable for graduation rates as an important and necessary measurement tool for determining where the challenges exist.

This focus on students shouldn’t stop at high school graduation, but should continue through their postsecondary education to make sure they have the support, guidance and resources they need to be successful, Nickel said.

“Mentors and academic coaches at both the high school and college level are crucial to bolstering degree attainment,” Nickel said. “College Success Arizona and other model programs in our state such as New Pathways for Youth, Destination Graduation, and First Scholars are mobilizing these support systems to assist students along their path to a bright future.”