Graduation rates: A view from an alternative school

COSSA Academy, a cooperative alterative high school in Wilder, ranked last in Idaho in graduation rates for 2014-15.

CEO Harold Nevill doesn’t take issue with the numbers, and last spring’s 7.9 percent graduation rate. But he does take issue with political and education leaders, who seem unaware of the unique challenges facing alternative schools.

“There is a role for alternative schools, and they don’t seem to get it,” Nevill told Idaho Education News Monday.

Short for the Canyon-Owyhee Social Service Agency, COSSA serves five rural school districts: Homedale, Marsing, Notus, Parma and Wilder. Like all alternative schools, COSSA takes students that are at-risk of not graduating. Under state law, alternative schools can only accept at-risk students.

Most arrive at COSSA Academy behind on high school credits. To Nevill, that’s an important point. And here’s why.

Idaho now uses the nationally accepted “cohort” model for tracking high school graduation rates: The state tracks students as they enroll in ninth grade, and counts the number of students who graduate after four years. If students don’t get their diploma on time, they aren’t counted toward the graduation rate. Many COSSA students show up so far behind on credits that they cannot possibly get their diplomas within the allotted four-year timeframe.

“The fact that they graduate at all, regardless of what their cohort does, is positive,” Nevill said. “Many of our students have been out of school for one or two years. Some just dropped out and others were incarcerated. In either case, their cohort left them behind long ago.”

So Nevill focuses on a different metric. He prefers to look at his students as they enter senior year. On any given year, about 70 percent of COSSA’s seniors get a diploma by the end of the school year. “And that’s what’s more important to us,” Nevill said.

If Nevill’s preferred method of math sounds familiar, it should.

For years, this was the way Idaho calculated its graduation rate for all students — regardless of what kind of school they attend. And when the state tracked only 12th graders, it recorded graduation rates in the 90 percent range. In 2014-15, under the new calculation, Idaho recorded at 78.9 percent graduation rate.

The mathematical methods are an offshoot in what figures to be a bigger debate: How can and should Idaho boost its high school graduation rates, in order to make sure more young adults receive a postsecondary education?

Alternative schools — which serve some 6,000 to 7,000 students — represent a significant piece of this puzzle.

More reading: In our recent series on four-day schools, we took a closer look at COSSA Academy.