The Denver Post

U.S. schools fearful of dropout surge

- By Heather Hollingswo­rth

» U.S. educators are doing everything they can to track down high school students who stopped showing up to classes and to help them get the credits needed to graduate, amid an anticipate­d surge in the country’s dropout rate during the coronaviru­s pandemic.

There isn’t data available yet on how the pandemic has affected the nation’s overall dropout rate — 2019 is the last year for which it is available — and many school officials say it’s too early to know how many students who stopped logging on for distance learning don’t plan to return. But soaring numbers of students who are failing classes or are chronicall­y absent have experts fearing the worst, and schools have been busy tracking down wayward seniors through social media, knocking on their doors, assigning staff to help them make up for lost time and, in some cases, even relaxing graduation requiremen­ts.

“When students drop out, they typically look for an out, an opportunit­y to leave. And this has provided that, unfortunat­ely,” Sandy Addis, chairman of the National Dropout Prevention Center, said recently, referring to the pandemic. His group believes the dropout rate has spiked this year and will remain high for years.

At one high school in Kansas City, Kan., staff members have made thousands of calls to the families of at-risk students, said Troy Pitsch, who supervises high school principals in the city.

“If we lose a student, it is going to be after kicking and screaming and fighting tooth and nail for them,” Pitsch said.

Many districts were forgiving last spring when schools shut

down abruptly, freezing grades unless students wanted to improve them. That made this year the first for which schools would feel the full effects of the pandemic on student performanc­e and engagement.

The early signs aren’t encouragin­g. The United Nations Educationa­l, Scientific and Cultural Organizati­on warned that the pandemic had put 24 million children worldwide at risk of dropping out of school. And the pandemic’s effects could erase gains the U.S. made in reducing its dropout rate, which fell from 9.3% in 2007 to 5.1% in 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Not finishing high school significan­tly hurts a person’s earning potential, with dropouts bringing home an average of $150 less per week than graduates, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

To keep students on track, some local government­s and school systems have waived certain testing requiremen­ts for graduation or changed grading policies so that missed assignment­s aren’t as damaging. But such leniency carries the risk of watering down academic standards, said Russell Rumberger, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has written about dropouts.

“If they let you pass with a D and you don’t have to do very much to do it, maybe technicall­y you are getting a diploma, but you are not getting the same type of diploma you may have gotten prior to the pandemic, when the standards were higher,” he said.

A National Dropout Prevention Center report predicted a doubling or tripling of the number of students who were at risk of falling behind academical­ly and not graduating.

Among them for much of this school year was Jose SolanoHern­andez, a 17-year-old senior at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan. In January, when he was at his lowest point following the deaths of one grandparen­t from COVID-19 and another from cancer in the same week, he estimated that he had missed eight assignment­s in each of his classes.

“I wouldn’t make my parents proud,” he recalled thinking as he struggled to learn virtually at night while working by day at a mechanic’s shop.

Solano-Hernandez has been slowly chipping away at his backlog of work since his school brought back him and other struggling seniors for extra inperson help more than a month before the rest of the student body returned at the end of March. He said the change brought “relief” and he’s now hopeful he’ll graduate.

 ?? Charlie Riedel, The Associated Press ?? A student walks between classes at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., on March 30, the first day of in-person learning.
Charlie Riedel, The Associated Press A student walks between classes at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., on March 30, the first day of in-person learning.

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