We have moved our blog directly to our full website. You can find our new blog posts here: http://youthforachange.org/news-events/cyc-blog/blog.html
Thank you for your support!
The Colorado Youth for a Change Team
We have moved our blog directly to our full website. You can find our new blog posts here: http://youthforachange.org/news-events/cyc-blog/blog.html
Thank you for your support!
The Colorado Youth for a Change Team
Some school districts serve thousands of students, while others serve hundreds, or less than a hundred. Some school districts have multiple elementary, middle, and high schools, while some have one for all grades. Some school districts have superintendents with very narrow and defined roles, while some have superintendents who coach the basketball team. It’s probably safe to say, no two school districts are exactly alike.
Yet as we continue to get to know and understand the state, and look at students who dropout from that perspective, the more we come to understand both the differences and the similarities. The differences, moreover, are often hard to understand because they can’t be compiled into a statistic easily. Differences require conversation and a lot of local perspective. Yet we have found similarities too. One similarity we think is true is why a student drops out.
For example, the literature usually reframes these reasons according to the following categories or factors: (1) pushout, (2) pullout and (3) fallout. A student who is pushed out encounters difficult or adverse circumstances within the school. This could mean a lack of school support, or an especially punitive attendance policy. A pullout factor could be parenting, the need to obtain full-time employment or challenges within the family. The third factor, fallout, occurs when a student does not make adequate progress and is behind academically. As a result, the student can become disillusioned or does not fully understand the implications of leaving school.
While these are general categories, we have consistently found them to be true. We also think that reframing it this way, and placing the responsibility across systems and communities, is also true of any youth.
An interesting study, called “Rural and Urban High School Dropout Rates: Are they Different?” shows that rural and urban students are not that different in terms of achievement and that “gender, family assets, the presence of biological parents, and maternal attributes appear to be the main determinates of graduation.” In other words, when those attributes are the same, rather the student lives in a rural or an urban community, graduation and dropout rates are very similar.
The Colorado Department of Education, moreover, recognizes five different settings:
The last three (outlying city, town and rural county) when taken together, represent about 17 percent of the student population, whereas about 54 percent of all students live in the Denver Metro Region, 27 percent live in the urban-suburban region, while 2.7 percent fall into an “other” school district, something like an online school.
Interestingly, when you compare the number of school districts across the state, a very different picture emerges—as anyone familiar with Colorado knows. 84 percent of all the school districts are in rural areas. Conversely, only 16 percent of all school districts are not rural! Many of the larger counties have one or two school districts, while rural counties often have multiple school districts miles apart from each other.
As far as students go, especially among those who dropout, the general trends found through the state, the entire country, and in rural areas are generally the same. For example, across Colorado, 59 percent of the dropouts are male whereas 41 percent are female. In rural areas, the number for males is actually a little higher with an average of 64 percent and 36 percent for females.
Another consistent trend is that students of color are over-represented within the dropout population. For example, students of color in Colorado make up 45.7 percent of all students, whereas they make up 65 percent of the dropout population. This difference is most noted in the Metro Denver area where students of color are 49.4 percent of the population and 72 percent of the dropout population. While not quite as much of a difference, but still concerning, students of color within rural areas are 38 percent of the student population, and make up half or 50 percent of the dropout population.
While it is helpful to look at data and draw some conclusions, it is equally important to understand the entire community picture. Looking for commonalities is helpful, but so is understanding the local perspective. The data does tell us some things. When it shows similar trends across the state and the nation, it suggests larger structural concerns. Yet the data ultimately needs to be informed and interpreted by people from those communities with the goal of helping all youth graduate on time. Indeed, the solutions won’t come from the data, but from what people can do.
A junior at Adams City High School, Jorge is charismatic and extremely confident. Theater is his main love and he hopes to one day be an actor. His eyes are set on the future. Will LA or New York offer more opportunities? He wants to go as soon as he graduates. Living in a big city is important to him, and he can’t wait to live in one as soon as possible. He also doesn’t want to live with regret. Jorge believes in following his dreams.
Jorge is also out. He’s out to his family and he’s out within his school. Most of the students he encounters know he is gay and it hasn’t been a big deal. He likes school, for the most part, and has been able to attend and participate just like any other student.
Yet coming out for Jorge, as it probably does for many students, starts earlier than high school.
“It usually starts happening in middle school. You know, you fall for someone,” says, Jorge.
But when it first starts happening, Jorge explained, it can make you feel alone and isolated. Many young LGBTQ youth fear that if they come out, they will be kicked out of their house—and forced to be homeless. Urban Peak, an organization serving youth experiencing homelessness in the metro Denver area, says that 28 percent of the youth they serve identify as LGBTQ. This is much higher than the general population were estimates usually range between five and ten percent.
LGBTQ youth can become desperate as they believe that they have no options. They can also feel as though there is no one who understands.
“I turned to YOUTUBE and watched videos, coming out videos. It helped me not feel alone.”
“This particular video really helped me with accepting who I am, made me feel less alone, and helped me explain to others what I was going through when words weren’t an option for my feelings at the time”:
Jorge also got into clubs where he could hang out after school. One of the first clubs he attended was the robotics club. Then he got into theater. In fact, he first came out to a group of older theater students, who put him on the spot. Made to answer the question in jest, Jorge felt he could only answer the question truthfully.
Another important club for Jorge was No Place for Hate hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. No Place for Hate is “designed to rally an entire school around the goal of creating a welcoming community committed to stopping all forms of bias and bullying.” Jorge enjoyed being part of a broader coalition aimed at making the school climate better for everyone. He thought it was more approachable than a club focused on LGBTQ students. Eventually, he became involved with both types of clubs.
GLSEN, a national organization that was founded by teachers in 1990, publish a great deal of research around LGBTQ students. Their “flagship report” called The National School Climate Survey looks at the experiences of these students and notes the successes and challenges for them within the school system. The report shows that 57.6 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe within their school. 27.0 percent said that they had been physically harassed (pushed or shoved) while 13.0 percent had been physically assaulted. According to the same survey, 3.4 Percent of LGBTQ students did not plan to finish high school. Of this group, 86.3 percent cited mental health concerns.
“Yeah, I know people who dropped out because they didn’t fit in,” Jorge explained. Leaving school because of fear of bullying or because of the inability to relate or fit in is a real concern for many LGBTQ students.
One other important support for LGBTQ students are “GSA” Clubs or Gay Straight Alliances. Like any afterschool club, a GSA is meant to bring students together around an important issue. GSA Clubs are part of a national network that extends into most colleges as well. And like any club, anyone can “sponsor” one and get them started. No two look the same, as some clubs take on broader issues, but what they have in common is that they work directly within the school to create a more accepting culture.
Another student, John Paul Zuni, attends Colorado High School Charter. John Paul loves music and is concurrently taking classes at Metropolitan State University in Denver. He would like to be a music producer someday and be in a band. Coming out wasn’t that hard for him as other people are already out within his family. In fact, when he came across the coming out videos on YouTube it was an eye-opening experience as he truly did not know what some LGBTQ youth were going through.
Last year, John Paul got involved with newly created GSA program, which was started by a Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC) AmeriCorps member. Their main focus for the year was to get people to stop using the word “gay” derogatively. Their approach was to speak with teachers and other school administration and ask them to create a positive culture where using the word negatively would not be acceptable.
For the most part, John Paul says, it was a success.
“You need teachers to help,” he said.
LGBTQ students are at higher risk for dropping out of school. Because of this, CYC focuses on these students, and broadly defines them as “MVP students” or Most Vulnerable Populations of students. Depending on the support they receive at home and at school, they can also be at risk for running away and becoming homeless. CYC works with community partners to provide supports. We also work with schools to help improve school climate.
With so much happening during high school, and with the additional risks, these students need just a little more support to ensure they finish school. If they have left school early, finding the right school where they will be accepted can make all the difference to their future success as well.
We recognize a group of students with exceptional needs and challenges. We call them the Most Vulnerable Populations (MVP) of students. Some MVP students are vulnerable because of their identity, such as LGBTQ, while others are vulnerable because of a life event, such as foster care. Other life events we recognize are pregnant or parenting, court-involvement and homelessness. While many different identities and experiences could lend towards making a student vulnerable, we focus on these particular areas because they have consistently stood out in our data. They also tend to be students who can be marginalized or exist between systems that are not always congruous.
Information and data from a national or state perspective tends to be lacking for these students, miserably lacking. When it is present, it is often not comprehensive or strategic (although Colorado is making incredible strides with an evaluation of foster care). It also does not “triangulate” or show overlap between an identity, a life event, and school success. For example, we have not been able to find a recent source that shows—or even estimates—the graduation rate or dropout rate for LGBTQ students, let alone the graduation rate for homeless and LGBTQ students. Yet we know LGBTQ students are over-represented in the homeless population. How are they doing with school? We really don’t know. Indeed, we recognize that a data framework is one of the greatest priorities when it comes to these students.
As you can imagine, we really want to inspire the community to look at MVP students. We also want to inspire the community to develop a framework for understanding them and their school success. We want to encourage this because we suspect that MVP students represent an increasingly larger proportion of the dropout population. As the number of students who drop out slowly declines, as it mostly has in Colorado over the last ten years, we believe these students, and perhaps a group of students we haven’t tracked or identified, will slowly become the dropout population. As dropout prevention efforts become increasingly sophisticated, and as the number of school options reach more and more students, students who still struggle with school will be caught between enormously powerful cultural forces or between systems. In other words, students who leave school will have factors that go far beyond education and the school’s role.
As mentioned, we don’t really have anything comprehensive. One source, which comes from the Colorado Department of Education, shows the graduation and dropout rates for specific populations, and is also known as Instructional Program Types. While this information is immensely valuable, it is tracked because there is specific programming and federal funding connected to it, which require accountability. For example, homelessness is tracked. What this data tells us is that ten years ago, students experiencing homelessness were 2 percent of all students who had dropped out of school. In the 2014-2015 school year, students experiencing homelessness were 5 percent of all students who had dropped out of school. In raw numbers, there were 18,027 students who dropped out at the end of the 2006-2007 school year with 338 of those students being homeless. In 2014-2015, there were 11,114 students who dropped out with 589 of them being homeless.
Unfortunately, this is the only longitudinal data on one of the MVP student populations. There is information emerging on Foster Care, but it is only getting started. And so are we with a truly comprehensive MVP students’ framework. Yet we can’t do it alone. We owe these vulnerable students our collaborative efforts to create something to help them.
10,530 students dropped out of school in the 2015-2016 school year, which corresponds to a 2.3 percent Dropout Rate. After a small increase in the dropout rate in the previous year, Colorado is back on track when it comes to dropout prevention and reengagement.
Each January an eagerly awaited set of numbers are published. After much toil and double-checking, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) releases the dropout numbers from the previous school year (school districts have until August 31st to finalize their numbers). CDE, working in conjunction with school districts, analyze, verify and look for any potential mistakes and anomalies before making the numbers final. They look for duplicates or instances where a student was “coded” as a dropout but had not actually dropped out. While all of these instances constitute a small amount of students, it’s impressive to see how much care is actually given.
So what do we know? The 2015-2016 dropout rate has gone down compared to last year and is less than where it was two years ago. The dropout rate is calculated by the number of students in the 7th through 12th grades, who left school that year, divided by the number of all enrolled students in those same grades. Here’s the number and rate for the last three years:
The 2014-2015 school year numbers were a bit of a surprise as the state of Colorado had seen the dropout rate decline for 8 years. Also, for the sake of comparison, this is what the dropout numbers and rate looked like the year Colorado Youth for a Change was started:
A notable trend this past school year was that the Metro Denver Region had 765 less youth leave school than compared to last year for a 13 percent decrease (5,923 students compared to 5,158). Within the Metro Denver Region, the largest decrease for any school district was from Adams 12 Five Star Schools which saw the numbers of students dropping out cut in half (681 students compared to 336). Aurora Public Schools had a 21 percent decrease (874 compared to 689). Denver saw a 7 percent decrease with 131 less students leaving (1,770 compared to 1,639).
The biggest percent decrease for a region was from the Southeast, which saw a 30 percent drop from the previous school year (291 students compared to 204).
“We are thrilled to see so many of the districts we work in see an increase in graduation rates and a decrease in dropout rates,” said Mary Zanotti, Executive Director of Colorado Youth for a Change. “We also recognize we still have a long way to go to reaching all of the students leaving school or not graduating across the state.”
Colorado Youth for a Change will eventually recover (the process of contacting out-of-school youth and bringing them back) about 500 of these students. 70 percent of those recovered students will be successful the year they are brought back.
Students leave school for a number of reasons. Some reasons have to do with their academic progress, while other reasons are connected to the enormous odds they face. For example, the most commonly cited reason given to us by students is that they “missed too many days”. A further look finds that these particular youth felt hopeless about their future and stopped attending. Yet we also know that students with considerable life events, such as foster care, homelessness and pregnancy, also drop out at higher rates. We call these later students MVPs—short for Most Vulnerable Populations.
CYC has always striven to develop programming that reengages students but also addresses their barriers. In some ways it’s heart wrenching to hear the obstacles youth face, but by collecting information and getting to know them, we learn about the path forward.
What makes education so powerful is its ability to build on what came before it. Curriculum is carefully designed to align with child development and to move towards greater complexity and depth in every subject. For this reason—and as many advocates claim—education begins the moment a child is born. Each development stage requires the right amount of input and experiences in order to move onto the next. Early childhood education is every bit as important as high school biology. Each step is necessary for the ultimate goal: graduation.
Likewise, dropping out of school is not something that happens suddenly or on a whim. It is often the culmination of a long line of challenges and struggles within the education process where a critical step was missed, making all the following grades a challenge. If this is combined with poverty and other barriers out of the student’s control—the cycle becomes clear.
A pivotal year for all students and their future success is the third grade. While third grade is not an absolute dividing line, there is plenty of research and evidence that shows children around this age begin to develop significant reading skills. A profound cognitive shift begins to take place as children move beyond recognizing letters and understanding words to a fuller comprehension of the text. A common refrain is that children “learn to read” until the third grade. After the third grade, children begin to “read to learn.” Reading, then, becomes the foundation of all future education.
In fact, one study, Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, showed that children who are falling behind in reading have greater chances of dropping out later. This study found that students “who do not read proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers”. What makes this so alarming is that this only describes students who are not proficient. Students who were significantly behind are six times more likely to leave school early and not graduate. The study concludes that a student who is behind in their reading and living in poverty face enormous odds towards graduation. For these students, failing to graduate rose to 35 percent compared to 16 percent.
In Colorado, the 2016 Kids Count report states“…58 percent of all fourth-graders were reading below grade level in 2015, according to the CMAS [Colorado Measures of Academic Success] English language arts assessment”. In the report, a map shows that rural communities along the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of the state have the highest levels of students not at grade level.
The 2016 Kids Count also shows a concerning association with reading level and income. Citing results from the National Assessment of Education Progress, the report describes, “The income-based achievement gap in Colorado is widening over time. Between 2003 and 2015, the gap in reading proficiency levels between low-income and higher-income students grew by 27 percent.”
Taking both of these things into account suggests enormous consequences for the future of Colorado. Yet there is still time and fortunately the issue is clearly understood by people within the education system. Former Lt. Governor Joe Garcia did a tremendous job bringing the issue to the forefront and amazing programming has emerged, most notably the Colorado Reading Corps program.
While third grade seems really far away for a program like ours, which works with students who have left school as teenagers, we recognize that making sure a student’s reading skills are at grade level or higher is one of the best dropout-prevention approaches. It’s ideal to keep students moving forward with their studies by providing the right support at the right time.
After an overwhelming response to our last post about chronic absenteeism, we thought we would dive a little deeper into the subject. Identifying students who are experiencing chronic absenteeism—which is most often described as missing 10 percent or more of school—is relatively straightforward. As many school administrators know, it’s also one of the most powerful early warning indicators out there. Yet it does require staff time, knowledge of a school’s database system, some Excel skills, and an ongoing commitment.
Chronic absenteeism is different than attendance in that it focuses on individual students and looks at all absences, whether they are excused or not. In addition, most attendance systems, like average daily attendance, look at attendance in the aggregate, and as a result, some students can be missed.
For example, Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Bryrnes make this case in one of the most widely quoted reports on the subject: The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools. In this report, a powerful case is made against using average daily attendance and for looking at individual school records instead. For example, as the report clarifies, “it is possible for a school to have 90 percent average daily attendance and still have as many as 40 percent of its students chronically absent because on different days different students are in school.”
At present, many organizations, as well as the federal government, are encouraging states in partnership with schools and school districts, to adopt chronic absenteeism as one of their accountability measures in the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind, and was signed into law on December 10th, 2015. ESSA provides more flexibility to schools by requiring each state to use five indicators of success with the fifth indicator being left to the discretion of the state. Each state is required to create a plan and provide it to the federal government next year. Colorado is currently creating their plan and their efforts are available on the state Department of Education’s website.
We’ve found that monitoring chronic absenteeism on a weekly basis provides a wealth of insight into patterns and trends among students. Our current approach is to:
Because chronic absenteeism looks at all absences, both excused and unexcused, we have to make sure we’re using the right attendance report, and that our formulas match the number of possible school days for the week. This information is then moved into a relatively simple and straightforward report that our staff and AmeriCorps members use to prioritize their time and focus for the week.
So far, we’ve found success with the model. Having a direct view of who is attending and who is not attending, provides clarity. This not only helps with prioritizing, but it also helps staff and AmeriCorps members quickly identify who is at risk, who is slipping and who is on the verge of dropping out of school. For us, it’s another data-driven tool for improving education among vulnerable students.
Students cannot learn if they are absent from school. A student who is not attending school is considered “truant” and is subject to the laws and school regulations that address this behavior. Both attendance and truancy rates are reported by the Colorado Department of Education and can be found on the SchoolView data center. Yet there are limitations to the definition of truancy, which is why chronic absenteeism is emerging as another concern.
The main distinction is that chronic absenteeism places an emphasis on missing any days of school regardless if the days are excused or not. Truancy does not factor in excused days. “Excused” is sometimes different based on local school district practice and administrators. What is more, high school age students can—legally—stop attending school on their seventeenth birthday in Colorado. There are, clearly, implications to this. Chronic absenteeism considers all students until they graduate.
So what is chronic absenteeism? In short, it is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year or at least 15 days. Once again, it makes no difference whether days were excused or not. As can be expected, chronic absenteeism “is a primary cause of low-academic achievement and a powerful predictor of those students who may eventually drop out of school.” (Every Student, Every Day).
The Department of Education, utilizing information from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), goes on to say that over 6 million students in 2013-2014 missed 15 days or more, which is basically one out of every eight students or 13 percent. Yet when you look at chronic absenteeism by grade those numbers change with more and more students chronically absent at the high-school level. This has enormous implications for our organization, and many others, which focus on engaging high school students with the purpose of graduating. Here’s the breakdown by grade:
Chronic absenteeism also impacts minority students more than white students. 22.2 percent of American Indian and Pacific Islander students are impacted the most, followed by 16.4 percent of Black students, 13.3 percent of Latino/Latina students, and 12.2 percent of white students. The CRDC also shows that chronic absenteeism “spikes” for all students in high school regardless of race or ethnicity.
We are particularly interested in chronic absenteeism and how to apply this current research to our work. We are interested in it as both a prevention lens to help us keep youth in school, as well as a means of understanding our students who have left school and are now returning. Chronic absenteeism, because it looks at excused and non-excused absences, allows for a more direct identification of high-risk students. It also has enormous implications for system-involved youth who are sometimes chronically absent for reasons beyond their control.
A study from the University of Utah found that “for each year that a student is chronically absent, his or her odds of dropping out approximately double.” So whether the student is excused or not, missing school has enormous consequences for their future.
As a nonprofit in the youth development field, there are often many objectives to juggle. They often require some debate and conversation to get it right. One particular juggling act is balancing the need for data collection and outcomes with the need to remain open-minded and youth centered. That is, it’s important to approach everyone as an individual and not a “number” as it is often said. This debate recently came to light with the development of some new programming.
For example, when starting a new program, it’s truly important to allow the facts to speak. It’s important to not bring a lot of assumptions, especially those made from previous programming, about how the youth will respond. We should allow the solutions, and even the exact target population, to emerge. Individual circumstances should guide the work and this can take time. People have different needs. Every city is different. Every school is different. You can never be quite sure.
Yet it’s equally important to have a clear outcome, which will help steer things in the right direction. It’s important to have research and use the existing evidence as much as possible. It’s also necessary to consider how things will translate into numbers and how it might translate into a data system or a report, as much as no one wants to turn someone into a number.
Clearly, the roles people have play a big part in their approach and where they land in the debate. Within our organization, we recognize that we are truly fortunate to have both of these perspectives in one place. The youth, in our opinion, really benefit from a program model that has been created and analyzed utilizing multiple perspectives.
There is, however, one thing we all agree on: A strict, linear approach isn’t going to happen. The youth we support have very complex lives and it is absolutely necessary to respect their experiences and allow for a true partnership. Whatever the answer and approach ends up being, it has to retain the deepest respect for the youth. It must be broad enough to allow for all the variations, but narrow enough to provide a sufficient amount of support.
We also all agree that it takes a lot of heart to do this work. Even our most analytic, number driven people wouldn’t be here if they didn’t feel a strong connection to our mission, and more importantly, to our students. This work takes compassion and patience from everyone. It also requires courage because we have to advocate—at all levels—for students.
There is perhaps one last thing we all agree on: We have to laugh and enjoy our time with the students (and each other).
So where do we stand as an organization? In short, we’re committed to drawing from both perspectives and incorporating them into our work. What this means for us is that we have to be open and collaborative when starting something new. Communication and respect are the cornerstones. We also have to be open to growing and the occasional revision. We have to be open to a kind of cognitive diversity where different people come together with differing viewpoints and approaches.
We wouldn’t want it any other way.
As we start the new school year, we reflect on last year’s dropout rate. After eight years of steady decline, the dropout rate in Colorado has gone up. While the percentage itself doesn’t seem like a wide swing, when you look at the raw numbers and imagine the future for each of those youth, a sense of urgency returns. Ideally we would see this number continue to go down until disappearing. After all the hard work schools and communities have invested into developing systems and supports for these students, why is it going up?
Before looking at those questions, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. If we go back two years or at least two cycles ago for the data—to the 2012-2013 school year—the dropout rate was 2.5 percent. It was 2.5 percent last year too. Here’s a quick view of dropout numbers:
You’ll notice that while the dropout rate was the same, there were 450 more students who dropped out last year compared to 2012-2013. This is because there are more students attending school in Colorado, which is impacting both the number of students and the rate. However, I think we would all agree that 450 students is a lot. And 11,114 students are too many.
So what is happening? It is uncertain right now, but we have two lines of thinking.
Our first line is that the improved job market is providing students with other avenues besides graduation. In the past, there were no jobs and so school increased the prospects of getting a job. Connected to this issue is the increased cost of living in our rapidly changing state. The high cost of rent is requiring some youth to work to support their families. For the long term, we know that having an education is absolutely essential.
Our next line of thinking is that these students are facing extreme barriers. While the schools and communities have made dramatic steps forward in helping these students, we might be nearing the end of those developments. The issues they face, like extreme poverty, sexual orientation, homelessness, court involvement, and the foster care system—to name just a few—go beyond what any single agency or school can solve.
As things move forward we hope to understand why the rate went up. Whatever the exact answers might be, we believe it will take broad coordination between all youth-serving agencies and organizations to see the next eight year reduction in the dropout rate.