Santa Fe Public Schools’ graduation rate climbed to 86.3 percent for the 2019-20 school year, up from 78.1 percent the year before, Superintendent Veronica García announced during Thursday’s school board meeting.
The figure continued a trend for the district over the past five graduating classes, according to data from the state Public Education Department.
The statewide graduation rate for 2019-20 was 76.9 percent, a 2 percent increase from the year before despite all schools halting classroom instruction for the last two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
García became emotional when she talked about the hard work teachers, staff members and administrators put in to track students’ progress.
“It’s so amazing for the kids,” García said. “It’s great for the district, but it’s amazing for the students that you graduate from high school. You will have a much greater quality of life than if you don’t.”
Board members Kate Noble, Carmen Gonzales and Lorraine Price expressed amazement at the news.
“Congratulations to everybody for their hard work — and that has been proven,” Price said.
The district’s two largest high schools saw significant increases in graduation rates for 2019-20. Santa Fe High went from 76.7 percent to 87.5 percent, and Capital High went from 78.1 to 82.7.
Every school in the district with a graduating class saw its rate increase. One school that continued a meteoric rise was the Academy at Larragoite, which was renamed Desert Sage Academy over the summer.
It had a 90.8 percent graduation rate for the Class of 2020 — a 19.9 percent jump from the previous year and 52.2 percent from the Class of 2018.
The Academy for Technology and the Classics, the lone charter school in Santa Fe Public Schools, had a graduation rate of 98.7 percent, which was a 3.1 percent increase.
Not all schools in Santa Fe saw an increase, however. Monte del Sol Charter School’s graduation rate fell from 78.9 percent for the Class of 2019 to 75.9 percent for 2020. New Mexico School for the Arts had an 88.1 percent rate last year, which was a 5.3 percent drop.
Regionally, Pecos Independent Schools saw its rate improve to 95 percent for the Class of 2020, compared to 89.9 from the previous class. Los Alamos Public Schools had 93.3 percent of its high school seniors graduate in 2020, up from 91.4 percent in 2019.
Española Public Schools’ graduation rate improved slightly, from 63 percent in 2019 to 63.3 percent in 2020.
In a news release, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart lauded seniors for their hard work amid difficult circumstances, especially as districts across the state had to make a dramatic shift to online instruction in a matter of weeks.
Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said there was no specific reason for the increase in graduation rates.
“It takes a variety of programs to meet the varied and individual needs of New Mexico students and help them succeed,” Robinson said. “We think the across-the-board improvement in the graduation rate for every demographic group is evidence that what we are doing is working.”
The district’s graduation rate increases hit every school with a senior class. Capital High School improved from 78.1 percent to 82.7 percent. Mandela International Magnet School had 98.6 percent of seniors graduate in 2020, compared to 88.1 in 2019. The former Academy at Larragoite, which was rebranded as Desert Sage Academy and moved to the old Capshaw Middle School building over the summer, had its graduation rate increase from 38.6 percent for 2017-18 to 90.8 percent in 2019-20.
Alice Braden, principal of Desert Sage, said having an enrollment of 46 students at Larragoite, with 23 of them being seniors, allowed for more personal relationships between students and teachers and improved communication. That continued even in remote learning, as teachers, counselors and even Braden used online meetings to check in with students.
“[Teachers] work with them and contacted them,” Braden said. "Also the counselor works with all the seniors, along with me. We’d meet every Monday and we talked about all of the students, but we really, really focused on the seniors to make sure they were graduating.”
When schools closed for the year, García said Santa Fe Public Schools was ready to make the online transition, in part because city voters passed the Education Technology Note in 2019, that approved the continuation of a property tax levy to fund technology programs. It allowed the district to continue to purchase take-home laptop computers for students, wireless upgrades and other technological support — all of which became crucial when campuses closed.
All district students had a laptop, and students who needed internet access were provided mobile hotspots or could use public Wi-Fi in parking lots of some schools.
“I think that not all schools had that access to technology like we did, so that was definitely gave us an advantage,” Garcia said.
Marano said another important component came well before the pandemic. Many schools set up mentorship programs in which seniors took freshmen under their wings to help guide them through their first year in high school. Marano said freshmen often struggle with the transition, and that’s when some of them fall behind academically.
For those that do struggle, the district’s credit recovery program, which uses a combination of traditional summer school classes and the year-round online program Edgenuity, has been important in helping students recover lost credits. The online component made it easier to track students’ progress, too.
“We’re making sure they were getting online,” Marano said. “It’s a credit to the counselors. What they do is tremendous.”
However, some of the tweaks the Public Education Department and the district made helped give graduates a boost in earning their diplomas. The graduation extension deadline gave seniors more time to finish coursework, and they also met graduation requirements in the district by passing end-of-year exams.
Student who failed a class that spring graduated by submitting a portfolio, completing work study or community service, or use another form of project-based learning by the state’s deadline.
Marano said about 60 Santa Fe High students needed that extra time to graduate. Associate superintendent Larry Chavez said the district did not have information available regarding how many students used exams or other avenues to graduate on time.