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  • John Franco

Santa Fe Schools: Joint effort lifted graduation rate

By James Barron, writer at Santa Fe New Mexican March 5, 2021 Source Article

Mentorship programs that pair upperclassmen with incoming freshman.

Online credit recovery efforts for struggling students.

An extended deadline to complete coursework amid a pandemic that derailed the school year.

And a heavy emphasis on ensuring seniors in the class of 2020 succeeded against all odds.

State and local education leaders cited such factors in the 8.6 percentage point rise in Santa Fe Public Schools’ four-year graduation rate — to a record 86.3 percent for 2020, compared with 78.1 percent in 2019 — and a statewide increase of 2 points, to 76.9 percent.

The Santa Fe district announced the news during a school board meeting Thursday night, while the state Public Education Department officially released figures Friday.

As district officials celebrated the improvement, which continued a five-year trend, they credited a collaborative effort among students, teachers, counselors and administrators during an unprecedented spring semester that saw campuses close across the state and all classes go remote.

“It takes an entire team with the support staff and counseling staff and teaching staff and administration to make it happen,” said Santa Fe High Principal Carl Marano, who saw his school’s graduation rate rise from 76.7 percent to 87.5 percent.

“And it’s a testament to our students and their perseverance,” Marano added.

Other factors also helped seniors reach the finish line, even as they finished the year learning from home.

The Public Education Department extended the deadline to meet graduation requirements from mid-May to mid-June and waived the requirement of 1,080 hours of instruction.

The district allowed seniors to meet some graduation requirements by passing end-of-year exams. Students who failed a class in the spring also were given an option to submit a portfolio, complete a work-study program or community service, or use another form of project-based learning to make up the credit by the state’s deadline.

Marano said about 60 Santa Fe High students needed that extra time to graduate.

Associate Superintendent Larry Chavez said he did not have data available regarding how many students across the district used exams or other avenues to graduate on time.

Superintendent Veronica García said there were signs before the pandemic hit that the class of 2020 was going to have a good year in Santa Fe. But she didn’t expect Santa Fe Public Schools to have the second-best graduation rate among large districts in the state — it trailed only Rio Rancho Public Schools, which had 88.3 percent of its students graduate in four years.

In a news release, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart lauded graduates for their hard work amid difficult circumstances, especially as districts had to make a dramatic shift to online instruction in a matter of weeks.

Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said there was no specific reason for the increase in graduation rates.

“It takes a variety of programs to meet the varied and individual needs of New Mexico students and help them succeed,” Robinson said. “We think the across-the-board improvement in the graduation rate for every demographic group is evidence that what we are doing is working.”

At Santa Fe Public Schools, every high school with a senior class saw its 2020 graduation rate rise from the prior year. Capital High School improved from 78.1 percent to 82.7 percent. Mandela International Magnet School had 98.6 percent of seniors graduate in 2020, compared to 88.1 percent in 2019. The former Academy at Larragoite, which was rebranded as Desert Sage Academy and moved to the old Capshaw Middle School building over the summer, increased its rate more than 52 percentage points in two years — to 90.8 percent in 2020 from 38.6 percent in 2018.

Alice Braden, the principal of Desert Sage who also headed Larragoite, said having an enrollment of 46 students at Larragoite — including 23 seniors — allowed for more personal relationships between students and teachers and improved communication.

That continued even in remote learning, as teachers, counselors and even Braden used online meetings to check in with students, she said.

“[Teachers] work with them and contacted them,” Braden said. “Also, the counselor works with all the seniors, along with me. We’d meet every Monday, and we talked about all of the students, but we really, really focused on the seniors to make sure they were graduating.”

When schools closed for the year last March, García said, the Santa Fe district was ready to make the online transition, in part because city voters passed and renewed a property tax-funded Education Technology Note that generated revenue for technology programs. This allowed the district to purchase take-home laptops and tablets for all students, complete wireless upgrades and beef up other technological support — all of which became crucial when campuses closed.

Students who lacked reliable internet access at home were provided with mobile hot spots or could use public Wi-Fi in parking lots of some schools.

“I think that not all [districts] had that access to technology like we did, so that was definitely gave us an advantage,” Garcia said.

Marano said another important component was established long before the pandemic. Many schools had set up mentorship programs in which seniors guided freshmen through their first year of high school.

Freshmen often struggle with the transition, Marano said, and that’s when some of them fall behind academically.

For those who do struggle, the district’s credit recovery program, which uses a combination of traditional summer school classes and the year-round online program Edgenuity, has helped students make up lost credits after failing or dropping classes.

The online component made it easier to track students’ progress, too.

“We’re making sure they were getting online,” Marano said. “It’s a credit to the counselors. What they do is tremendous.”

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