Joshua Rhine laments the two years of disrupted learning students at his school have endured during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rhine, principal of Early College Opportunities High School, said some students broke up last year when the pandemic derailed their heavily hands-on curriculum.
Kids studying car body construction and welding suddenly had to switch to online learning from home.
ECO, a dual-credit school where students take collegiate-level courses and earn professional certifications and associate degrees while working towards their diplomas, saw a 17 percentage point drop in its graduation rate between the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021
Stronger bonds between staff and students this year, brought on by the return to in-person learning, should help keep seniors on the path to graduation, Rhine said.
“Only the staff who have the ability to know the majority of the students and can read the body language and know they need help,” were beneficial, he said.
According to the information provided, the completion rate of ECO fell from 83 percent in the previous year to 66 percent in 2021
State data, a worrying sign for an alternative high school preparing for a multi-million dollar expansion that would allow it to more than double its student enrollment.
It was one of four small high schools in the city — two in Santa Fe public schools and two state-certified schools — that saw a sharp drop in graduation rates, while rates at other schools remained broadly stable.
While school leaders cited various reasons for the declines, they agreed that the pandemic was taking its toll, particularly when it came to student attendance at non-traditional institutions designed to offer more intimate, hands-on experiences that have been disrupted by closures were disabled.
Santa Fe Public Schools administrators cite smaller class sizes at ECO and Desert Sage Academy in 2021 as another major reason for their dramatic drop in graduation rates.
With only a handful of seniors at each school last year, each student who didn’t make it across the finish line meant a significant drop in graduation rates.
Officials at both charter schools, Tierra Encantada and Monte del Sol, said they were concerned their graduation dates were being misreported to the state Department of Education, and they are re-examining the numbers.
Still, they said a larger number of students struggled to graduate last year than in previous years and some seniors who did not earn diplomas struggled with poor attendance.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Education said the agency recently completed a correction process for graduation rates and will be meeting with schools to fix any errors.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said in a recent memo that rates at the district’s smallest high schools “can fluctuate, making comparisons difficult from year to year.”
The district enrolled just seven seniors at the predominantly online Desert Sage Academy in 2020-21, which saw its graduation rate drop to
54.2 percent compared to 90.8 percent in the previous year.
Thirteen seniors made up the ECO 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 Haele, who served as principal there last year.
The lack of hands-on learning has also had an impact, he added.
This year, ECO has a larger senior class, and most of them are on track to graduate, Rhine said.
Desert Sage Academy, whose mission was revised 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 working largely independently through the district’s online Edgegenuity curriculum to earn their diplomas.
Many Desert Sage seniors work while taking online classes, Granado said, and staff work to meet those schedules by making themselves available for questions late into the evening.
Granado hopes to add more in-person check-ins for students next school year, he said, “especially for the upper grades. If you don’t have a teacher there, you have to be highly motivated.”
In Monte del Sol, with a class of 47 in 2021, principal Zoë Nelsen worries the drop in graduation rates is due to mistakes.
“Based on some of our research, I believe it’s an inaccurate percentage,” she said.
Nine seniors didn’t 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 are relying on online credit-recovery programs to make up for losses during distance learning.
At Capital High School, where the graduation rate remained unchanged at nearly 83 percent, Principal Jaime Holladay estimated that 30 percent of seniors used loan collection programs to finish on time last year.
Holladay said staff regularly visited the homes of students who were struggling, which helped them stay on track.
Daniel Peña, director of Tierra Encantada, a bilingual charter school that emphasizes project-based learning, said he plans to meet with state education officials next week to discuss the possibility of data errors that would result in a 57.4 percent graduation rate .
Meanwhile, administrators are working to ensure their 40 seniors get the support they need to graduate this year — including loan recovery help.
Principal Angela Esquibel-Martinez said demand for loan repayments was “strong” this year.
“We even got staff to do just that — teachers who administer our loan collection program — because we had such great needs,” she said.
Visitor numbers fell last year and contributed to the
Struggles, added Esquibel-Martinez.
Typically, state high school seniors are required to earn 24 credits and demonstrate competency, either through end-of-course exams or, in some cases, special projects. The state has relaxed competency requirements during the pandemic, including for this year’s high school.
Rhein said that was helpful for his students.
He believes they would do well on final exams based on scores required to enroll in dual-credit college courses, but he said their path to graduation is easier.
“That’s one less thing,” Rhine said. “I wouldn’t worry too much about my students demonstrating competence.”