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Students are automatically enrolled if their credits drop below what is considered on-track for graduation.
For students to be on track for graduation, they have to end each semester with a certain number of credits. In Arizona’s Casa Grande Union High School District, if a student gets behind, an automated system catches it, notifies parents as well as the student, and enrolls that student in the Desert Winds Learning Center.
Students don’t have a choice. The system is outlined in the student handbook, which every family agrees to abide by as a condition of enrollment. While students are catching up at Desert Winds Learning Center, there is an intensive focus on core academics. They don’t take electives, and they don’t participate in extracurricular activities.
Superintendent Shannon Goodsell says the bottom line is that many “super seniors” who don’t have enough credits to graduate in four years simply do not come back. They drop out.
“That’s something we’re just not going to allow,” Goodsell said.
In a district with two comprehensive high schools serving about 1,600 students, the program helped 87 students graduate during the 2015-16 school year who Goodsell said otherwise would have been dropouts. This year, he expects the program to get close to 120 students to earn their diplomas by the end of the summer.
Casa Grande Union High School District’s efforts represent one strategy among many as districts and states work hard to increase graduation rates. A meeting of the nation’s governors in 1989, convened by President George H.W. Bush, put a spotlight on national graduation rates. The following three presidents made a 90% graduation rate by 2020 a central part of their education policy platforms, and the 2017 Building a Grad Nation Report emphasizes the progress made.
In 2015, the latest year for which there is complete data available, the national high school graduation rate was 83%. While there is much to celebrate, only about half of states are on track to reach the 90% goal by 2020. Many states have seen slowing or stagnant progress, particularly with certain subgroups of students, and 900,000 students still attend high schools where fewer than two-thirds of them graduate.
“Just as more authority and responsibility for educational improvement are being given to states through the Every Student Succeeds Act, there is growing evidence that beneath continued national progress, we are trending toward a divide between states that are pushing forward in boosting high graduation rates for all and those that are not,” report authors wrote.
Additionally, some of the growth has been called into question. Skeptics wonder whether the rising graduation rates are due to lowered standards or other attempts to game the system. Alabama and Tennessee have both revealed measurement and reporting errors that artificially inflated their graduation rates. But authors of the Grad Nation report found little evidence to support the idea that more students are graduating because of lower standards – especially at a scale that would greatly impact the national figures. In fact, more than a dozen states actually made it harder to get a diploma between 2008 and 2013, and a study by the National Center for Education Statistics found only Illinois made it easier.
At Casa Grande Union High School District, Goodsell is cognizant of the skepticism toward credit recovery. But he said the signs of success are not a mirage.
“The curriculum is not a watered-down version of their high school class,” Goodsell said. “It is the exact same curriculum that they would take at the comprehensive high school. It’s just managed and presented in a different format.”
Students get more individualized instruction, thanks to assessments that identify where, exactly, their gaps in knowledge are for classes they failed the first time through. A blended learning model combines work on a computer and teacher-led instruction. And because of an accelerated pace at the Desert Winds Learning Center, they can get seven or eight credits in a single year instead of just six. With one or two additional credits possible during summer school, students have time to catch up.
Goodsell said the time students spend at the learning center varies widely. Some are there for just a single semester, while others spend a year before returning to their comprehensive high schools and some stay until they graduate. At any given time, there are about 400 students enrolled.
And the system has won widespread support from throughout the district. The prospect of losing access to extracurriculars has served as a special motivation.
“It’s a huge incentive for many of our students,” Goodsell said. “Once you take away that extracurricular option, they really work hard to get that back.”
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