Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
After the recession hit six years ago, Manzano High School Principal Therese Carroll began to notice a change in her school.
Many of the lower-middle-class and blue-collar families in the surrounding neighborhoods fell into poverty, and the number of low-income students attending Manzano more than doubled, Carroll said. While only 28 percent of Manzano’s students were low-income in 2008, this year 63 percent fall into that category.
It’s for that reason Carroll said she was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn Manzano was listed in a recent New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee report as among the 25 New Mexico high schools with the highest number of dropouts.
In 2013, 102 students dropped out of Manzano – 6 percent of its enrollment – according to the LFC Report.
The report said 51 percent of teens who drop out of high school were concentrated in 25 schools during the 2013 school year. Nearly 7,200 students dropped out of school that year.
Four other large, traditional Albuquerque Public Schools also were included in that list: Del Norte, Highland, Rio Grande and West Mesa. Those schools had 2013 dropout rates between 4 and 7 percent.
The list also included numerous charter schools that deal with at-risk populations and large traditional high schools in Belen, Bernalillo, Carlsbad, Clovis, Española, Hobbs, Las Cruces and Roswell.
All five APS schools on the list have high poverty rates with at least 63 percent of their students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, according to data provided by APS.
Principals at those APS schools say overcoming the dropout problem is difficult, but they believe they have strong programs and initiatives in place to curb it.
In response to the demographic changes at Manzano, Carroll said, school officials have incorporated AVID classes that teach students how to prepare for college.
“I think there is a lot of willingness (among teachers) to do different things” to help students, Carroll said.
Manzano, along with 23 other APS schools, is also participating in a new anti-truancy program. Under the program, school counselors follow up with calls and at-home visits with chronically truant students.
Carroll said Manzano plans to adopt a new adviser program next year that should help curb dropouts. Under the program, students would be assigned a teacher-adviser to work with throughout their high school career.
Having just one adviser should help students build a strong relationship with that teacher, who then will be in a better position to help them if they run into academic or personal struggles, Carroll said.
Manzano teachers were the ones who thought of the idea, including Andy Cook, who last school year was a recipient of the prestigious Milken Educator Award, Carroll said.
Manzano’s four-year graduation rate in 2009 was 70.5 percent. It was 67.6 percent in 2013, the last year data is available.
East Mountain Charter High School, which was founded in 1999, also competes with Manzano in attracting students. The charter school enrolled 363 in 2013, according to Public Education Department data. That year it had three dropouts.
At Del Norte High School, dropouts have long been a problem, Principal Jo Sloan said.
One of the main culprits for Del Norte’s struggles has been that many of its students are coming and going during the school year.
“We have a high mobility rate. We have a lot of kids transferring in and out,” Sloan said, adding that switching schools during the school year can make it difficult for students to stay on track academically. Once a student falls behind, it’s a struggle for them to recover their credits, Sloan said.
This year, Del Norte started what it hopes becomes a new tradition at the school, in which each freshman class signs a pledge promising to graduate on time.
The pledge is not supposed to be just a feel-good thing, but an initiative that gets freshman to think hard about what it will take to stay on track academically, Sloan said.
Del Norte is also a participant in APS’s truancy program. So are Highland, Rio Grande and West Mesa.
Those three schools – Highland, Rio Grande and West Mesa – all have seen improvements to their four-year graduation rates in recent years.
This spring, former Highland principal Scott Elder and former Rio Grande principal Yvonne Garcia said their schools saw an improvement because they raised expectations for students and implemented a number of successful academic strategies. Elder moved to Sandia High School this year and Garcia retired.
Both West Mesa Principal Ben Santistevan and new Rio Grande Principal Amanda De Bell said closing their campuses in recent years – meaning students are not allowed to leave during lunch – has been a successful strategy for combating truancy.
“Once they come, they can’t leave,” Santistevan said. “Once they are here and can’t leave, it’s easier for us to keep track. … If we see kids on the periphery of the campus, we address it right away.”
West Mesa and Rio Grande provide professional development for teachers on how to better instruct students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and may be dealing with issues such as hunger and stress at home.