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Restoring hope for vulnerable children

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The story in Santa Fe’s schools is changing. Our most vulnerable students are regaining hope that was once lost and more students are now persisting through high school. Children who were once removed from public school campuses are now being provided with a second chance and children who are considering withdrawing from school are being provided with the one-on-one guidance that they need.

SFPS’ one-year dropout rates show that this renewed hope is paying real dividends in terms of student success. The number of students leaving school prior to graduation has been reduced from 6 percent in school year 2011-12 to 2.8 percent in school year 2012-13. That’s a greater than 50 percent improvement year over year – remarkable results that will benefit not only the individual students, but also the entire Santa Fe community.

Joel Boyd. (Courtesy photo)

Joel Boyd. (Courtesy photo)

Of course, even one student dropping out of school is too many. However, in Santa Fe, where the community was facing a crisis, with outsiders referring to the district’s high schools as dropout factories, these results are extremely significant. They come on the heels of a year of extraordinary focus on SFPS’ most at-risk population. Students in Santa Fe who are now considering dropping out meet with their principal and then the superintendent to discuss their plans and explore alternative options. While simple, this new process resulted in more than 25 percent of students choosing to return to high school last year and, this year, the district has seen a significant reduction in the number of students even considering the possibility of withdrawing in the first place.

Moreover, at every school, administrators and staff now move through a defined support process when a student is absent from school for extended periods of time. Previously, the system would simply drop kids from enrollment when they were absent for 10 days, potentially allowing students to fall through the cracks. No more. SFPS now knows where every child is and, if not, staff make an extraordinary effort to find them.

SFPS has also focused more resources on our chronically underperforming schools. Through the Transformation Zone initiative, the district has placed instructional coaches and interventionists in the seven neediest schools and supplemented that support with wraparound services that are coordinated by Communities in Schools of New Mexico.

As a result, this past year, Capital High School posted its highest graduation rate ever. At 64.2 percent, Capital’s four-year cohort graduation rate now surpasses the district as a whole and is on the verge of reaching the state’s average; a notable accomplishment for the city’s second-largest high school, which serves one of Santa Fe’s highest populations of economically disadvantaged families. Overall, across the district, economically disadvantaged high schoolers posted their highest graduation rate in three years.

Santa Fe’s focus on its neediest children extends beyond school personnel, and includes important partnerships with the City and nonprofit agencies.

Historically, the practice in SFPS was to suspend disruptive students from school, in some cases for months at a time, with no educational alternatives in place. Absent support, these children fell further behind, increasing their risk of repeating negative behaviors and dropping out altogether. This year, in partnership with Santa Fe Children and Youth, SFPS established the Transitional Education Program (TEP). Now, when students display behaviors that require separation from school, they are assigned to TEP where they receive academic support and individualized counseling. SFPS also recently announced the opening of Engage Santa Fe, a new educational program for students who previously dropped out. Engage Santa Fe staff will recruit students back to school and provide them with an individualized academic plan that allows them to earn a diploma. SFPS has quite simply decided that the system will not give up on a single student, no matter how many challenges he or she might have.

All of this combines with a significant expansion of programmatic options to keep kids engaged and on track to graduate from the first day they enter ninth grade. Overall, SFPS is re-imagining the high school curriculum to embed greater career relevance. Among a variety of programs from which students can choose, in the fall – with the support of numerous community partners – SFPS will be opening a program with a focus on sustainability and expanding trades-based education.

It’s clear that when children drop out of school, their future earning potential decreases while their potential for involvement in the justice system increases. The fact that Santa Fe’s students are now choosing to stay in school is an important sign for the future well-being of our community. More of our children are now getting a complete education and Santa Fe as a whole is sure to reap the rewards. Santa Fe is now on its way to being a world-class city with truly world-class schools.

Joel Boyd is superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools.

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