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NM 2015 graduation rate was worst in nation

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico had the nation’s worst high school graduation rate in 2015 – a poor showing tied to poverty and demographics, according to a new report.

But the picture is complex – some states have had much greater success than New Mexico in helping low-income students get to graduation day, “challenging any notions that low outcomes for low-income students are inevitable,” the study states.

With 69 percent of students earning their cap and gown on time, the Land of Enchantment stands out in the latest “Building a Grad Nation” study from Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University. No other state was under 70 percent that year.

Nationally, the high school graduation rate hit a record-breaking 83 percent in 2015, though still well below the study’s 90 percent goal.

“Building a Grad Nation” also lists Albuquerque Public Schools near the bottom of the 100 largest school districts for its 62 percent high school graduation rate. Only the Milwaukee School District was worse at 58 percent.

Jennifer DePaoli, “Building a Grad Nation” co-author, stressed that New Mexico’s poverty plays a major role in its educational outcomes.

“One of the biggest issues New Mexico has to contend with is such a significant number of low-income students,” DePaoli said.

About 58 percent of New Mexico high school seniors qualify as low-income, and only 64 percent of them earned a diploma in 2015. Nearly 70 percent of New Mexico students who fail to graduate on time are low-income.

Two states that have shown success in graduating low-income students are California and West Virginia.

In California, 67 percent of high school seniors are low income, and their graduation rate is 78 percent.

The result is even more dramatic in West Virginia. Low-income students there made up 66 percent of the high school class in 2015, but nearly 83 percent graduated.

For New Mexico, poverty is compounded by demographic challenges – the state has the highest percentage of students who qualify as English Language Learners, 27 percent. As a group, 64 percent of them graduated on time in New Mexico.

“Those students, unfortunately, tend to graduate at much lower rates,” DePaoli said. “On the plus side, New Mexico is identifying a large number of English Language Learners, so hopefully that means that those students are getting the support that they need.”

DePaoli also highlighted gradual improvement in New Mexico’s graduation rate – “a glimmer of hope that there are good things happening.”

“Building a Grad Nation” is a year behind the New Mexico Public Education Department’s latest data, which shows a 71 percent statewide graduation rate for 2016, including growth among Hispanic, African-American, low-income and disabled students. APS’ graduation rate also rose in 2016, jumping 4 points to 66 percent.

Since 2011, the state’s graduation rate has gone up 8 percentage points.

Education Secretary Hanna Skandera said New Mexico must implement reforms to continue the positive trajectory.

“The status quo has failed New Mexico for far too long,” she said in an emailed statement. “We’re setting higher standards for our kids – and they are rising to the occasion … But there’s more work to be done – including ending the failed practice of social promotion, which passes our kids on to the next grade when they can’t read.”

For DePaoli, a key is community involvement.

She complimented Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s work with Running Start for Careers, a public/private partnership that offers apprenticeships and education. Berry also serves on the council of Mission: Graduate, which aims to help New Mexicans earn 60,000 new college degrees and certificates by 2020.

Mission: Graduate Executive Director Angelo Gonzales said schools need partners to work with them to support children “from cradle to career.”

“This challenge is not something school districts can solve on their own,” he said. “It requires coordination and the assets in our community to be successful.”