Joshua Rhine laments the two years of disrupted learning students at his school endured during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rhine, principal of Early College Opportunities High School, said some students became disengaged last year, when the pandemic derailed their heavily hands-on curriculum.
Kids studying auto body work and welding suddenly had to shift to online learning from home.
ECO, a dual-credit school where students take college-level courses and earn professional certifications and associate degrees while they work toward their diplomas, saw a 17 percentage point drop in its graduation rate between the class of 2020 and the class of 2021.
Tighter connections between staff and students this year, brought by a return to in-person learning, should help keep seniors on track to graduate, Rhine said.
“Just the staff having that ability to know the majority of students and being able to read body language and knowing they need help” has been beneficial, he said.
ECO’s graduation rate dropped to 66 percent in 2021 from 83 percent the previous year, according to
state data, a troubling sign for an alternative high school gearing up for a multimillion-dollar expansion that would allow it to more than double its student population.
It was one of four small high schools in the city—two in Santa Fe Public Schools and two state-chartered schools—that saw steep graduation rates declines while the rates at other schools largely held steady.
While school leaders cited varied reasons for the declines, they agreed the pandemic took a toll, especially when it came to student attendance at nontraditional institutions designed to offer more intimate, hands-on experiences that were hampered by shutdowns.
Administrators at Santa Fe Public Schools point to smaller class sizes at ECO and Desert Sage Academy in 2021 as another big reason for their dramatic graduation drops.
With only a handful of kids in the senior class at each school last year, every student who didn’t make it across the finish line meant a significant decline in the graduation rate.
Officials at the two charter schools, Tierra Encantada and Monte del Sol, said they worried their graduation data was misreported to the state Public Education Department and they are reexamining the numbers.
Still, they said a larger number of students struggled to graduate last year than in previous years, and said some seniors who didn’t earn diplomas struggled with poor attendance.
A spokeswoman for the Public Education Department said the agency recently wrapped up a correction process for graduation rates and would meet with schools to address any possible errors.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said in a recent memo rates at the district’s smallest high schools can “fluctuate, making year-to-year comparisons difficult.”
The district reported just seven seniors in 2020-21 at the predominantly online Desert Sage Academy, which saw its graduation rate drop to
54.2 percent from 90.8 percent the previous year.
Thirteen seniors made up ECO’s class of 2021.
“I think a lot of variety in numbers at a school like ECO is directly related to class size,” said Assistant Superintendent Michael Hagele, who served as principal there last year.
The lack of hands-on learning also had an effect, he added.
This year, ECO has a larger senior class, and most of them are on track to graduate, Rhine said.
Desert Sage Academy, which had its mission overhauled and expanded this year to serve students in grades K-12, also has a larger group of seniors this year, said Michael Granado, the school’s new principal.
He said this year’s seniors are largely working independently through the district’s online Edgenuity curriculum to earn their diplomas.
Many Desert Sage seniors are working while taking online courses, Granado said, and staff members are working to accommodate those schedules by making themselves available for questions late into the evening.
Granado hopes to add more in-person check-ins for students in the next school year, he said, “especially for the upper grades. If you don’t have a teacher there, you have to be highly motivated.”
At Monte del Sol, with a 2021 class of 47, Head Learner Zoë Nelsen fears the graduation rate drop was due to errors.
“Based on some of our research, I feel it’s an inaccurate percentage,” she said.
Nine seniors failed to graduate last year, Nelsen said, and six of them are taking credits this year so they can earn their diplomas.
Some students had been straight-A students, she said, but during the pandemic, “they essentially stopped coming.”
Nelsen, like other school administrators, said more students have been relying on online credit recovery programs to make up for losses during remote learning.
At Capital High School, where the graduation rate was unchanged at nearly 83 percent, Principal Jaime Holladay estimated 30 percent of seniors used credit recovery programs to finish on time last year.
Holladay said staff members made regular visits to homes of students who were struggling, which helped them stay on track.
Daniel Peña, director of Tierra Encantada, a dual-language charter school that emphasizes project-based learning, said he plans to meet next week with state education officials to discuss the possibility of data errors leading to a 57.4 percent graduation rate.
In the meantime, administrators are working to ensure their 40 seniors this year have the support they need to finish — which includes credit recovery aid.
Principal Angela Esquibel-Martinez said the need for credit recovery is “heavy” this year.
“We even aligned staff members to do just that — teachers who are managing our credit recovery program — because we’ve had such a great need,” she said.
Attendance plunged last year, contributing to students’
struggles, Esquibel-Martinez added.
Typically, high school seniors in the state must accrue 24 credits and demonstrate competency, either through end-of-course exams or, in some cases, special projects. The state has eased up on the competency demonstration requirement during the pandemic, including for this year’s senior class.
Rhine said that has been helpful for his students.
He believes they would perform well on end-of-course exams, based on assessments required to enroll in dual-credit college courses, but he said their path to graduation is simpler.
“It’s one less thing,” Rhine said. “I wouldn’t be too worried about my students being able to demonstrate competency.”