New Mexico’s high school graduation rate jumped to 70 percent last year, a significant increase from 2011′s 63 percent.
When releasing the new rates on Thursday, Gov. Susana Martinez said she is “thrilled to see this progress,” but emphasized there is more work to do.
“It is a big step, but it’s far from the last step,” Martinez said. “Our graduation rate of 70 percent is a mile marker – a significant one – in a much longer journey. But it still means that three out of every 10 students are not making it to the graduation finish line.”
The official graduation rate for Albuquerque Public Schools, including all district-authorized charter schools, is 65 percent for the class of 2012, up from 63.4 last year.
But not counting the charters, the rate was 70.1 percent for the class of 2012, bringing the district to a goal Superintendent Winston Brooks has been working toward for years. Brooks said he is pleased the district met that target, and it’s time to set a new one.
“Even though we’re very happy about this, because we’ve been working a long time to get over that 70 percent hump, we’ve already set a new target, and that’s 75 percent. And I want to hit 75 within the next three years,” Brooks said.
The 65 percent figure includes students at charter schools, including ones at the county jail and juvenile detention center; students who are homebound; and students in residential treatment for mental health issues.
Brooks said all those places serve an important purpose, but that the APS graduation rate should reflect schools that are staffed and overseen by the district.
“I really think that when people think about the graduation rate of Albuquerque Public Schools, they’re talking about Sandia, they’re talking about West Mesa, they’re talking about Highland. They’re not thinking about the kids at Memorial Hospital,” Brooks said.
Charter schools have a heavy impact on the APS graduation rate, since many locally authorized charter schools serve at-risk students. Gordon Bernell, the charter school at the Metropolitan Detention Center that predominantly serves adults, has a graduation rate of 5.5 percent and is factored into the APS rate. La Academia de Esperanza, which mainly serves students in treatment at Desert Hills behavioral health, has a graduation rate of 12.1 percent.
Bruce Hegwer, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, said Brooks should consider that charters serve many at-risk students who might otherwise drop out of APS schools.
“It’s trying to make kind of a scapegoat out of charter schools for the dropout rate,” Hegwer said. “I don’t think that’s an entirely fair statement to make. These charter schools, whether he has control over them or not, are addressing the needs of students who APS was not able to serve at one time or other.”
Brooks countered that just as low-performing students opt into certain charters, high-performing students also opt into private schools, pushing APS’ graduation rate down.
Martinez made her announcement at Rio Rancho High School, and praised Rio Rancho Public Schools for improvement. Among large, traditional high schools, V. Sue Cleveland High has the second highest rate in the state with 90.1 percent. Lovington High took the top spot.
Education Chief Hanna Skandera recognized Rio Rancho High for making improvements. The school had an 83.4 percent graduation rate in 2012, up from 79.7 percent in 2011.
Rio Rancho’s overall rate improved from 72.9 percent in 2011 to 78.8 percent.
APS saw striking growth at some of its high schools, particularly West Mesa High, which was highlighted at Martinez’s press conference. The West Mesa graduation rate jumped from 58.2 percent in 2011 to 70 percent for the class of 2012. Brooks said he attributes that growth to the strong leadership of principal Ben Santistevan, who started at West Mesa in 2010. West Mesa has not historically been one of the district’s success stories, and about three-quarters of its students are from low-income families. Brooks said he plans to work closely with Santistevan and his staff to see what programs and practices have been most influential there.
“We’re going to find out what happened at these places that had great results,” Brooks said. “I want to replicate some of the things that have happened at West Mesa.”
APS also saw the first graduation rate for Atrisco Heritage Academy. The rate is 76.9 percent, which significantly exceeds the state and district averages. The new high school, located on the far southwest mesa, is about 80 percent low income. Brooks said he is pleased with that number, but cautioned that it is only the first class and he doesn’t want to celebrate prematurely.
Two schools that saw declines in graduation rates were Valley and Manzano high schools.
APS also saw improvement among all subgroups of students except Anglos, whose graduation rate of about 75 percent remained steady.
Hispanic students improved by two percentage points, to 61.6 percent. Students who are learning English improved markedly, from 50.6 percent last year to 57.3 percent this year.
Brooks said he believes the gains are due to a number of different programs and initiatives the district has begun over the past several years, like pushing more students to try Advanced Placement classes. Since Brooks came to Albuquerque in 2008, the number of Hispanic students taking AP classes has more than doubled and they now outnumber Anglo students in total AP enrollment.
Brooks also credits the increase in students taking college credits for dual credit, and the introduction of the AVID program, which aims to help students in the “academic middle” learn the study skills they need for college.
“I would contend that many of the reforms we introduced three and four years ago, we’re now beginning to see the fruits of our labor,” Brooks said.
And although Brooks and the governor have not always seen eye-to-eye on how to improve education, Brooks gave a nod to Martinez and the Public Education Department for placing a statewide emphasis on improving education.
“People feel more accountable than they probably ever have before, and I give PED a lot of credit for that,” he said.
Journal staff writer Elaine D. Briseño contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal