Some schools struggled to graduate seniors during pandemic-forced closures

The first months of the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to Idaho’s improved 2020 high school graduation rate because some requirements were waived when buildings closed and learning moved online.

But improved rates were not universal. For 83 of Idaho’s more than 200 high schools, the graduation rate dropped from the prior year.

Idaho’s overall graduation-rate increased from 80.7 percent to 82.1 percent — a jump of 1.4 percentage points, the highest in five years. The pandemic forced schools to shut their doors in April, about two months before graduation. Much of the required work in that time was waived, including senior projects and standardized testing, making it easier for students to graduate. Consequently, some schools saw healthy increases in their graduation rates.

Yet in some schools, large numbers of seniors got lost in the transition to online, or they dropped out. When the pandemic hit, nearly 15 percent of Idaho students did not have internet access, and 12 percent lacked access to a device that could deliver educational content, according to an Idaho Education News analysis of a new survey from the State Department of Education.

Payette Superintendent Robin Gilbert thinks her graduation rate fell, in part, because seniors left the district.

Payette was celebrating a steady rise in its graduation rate, jumping from 71.1 percent in 2017 to 89.5 percent in 2019. But the Pirates’ graduation rate fell significantly in 2020, to 70.5.

Students who dropped out and obtained their GED from a school like nearby Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Ore., still count as a dropout at their original school district.

Another factor, according to Gilbert, is that Payette had no alternative high school. All seniors attend Payette High. Nearby schools Fruitland and Homedale have more choices for seniors, including Fruitland Preparatory Academy and COSSA Academy for Homedale students.

“With an alternative high school, districts look stronger at their main building unless you consider the combination of schools,” she said. In the spring of 2020, Payette trustees voted to reopen its alternative school, Presidio High, for this school year.

Payette High also recently implemented stricter attendance policies, which Gilbert said resulted in a loss of credits for some students.

“Payette has taken a strong stance on improving achievement outcomes for students graduating from our high school,” Gilbert said.

Cascade Jr/Sr High School has a four-year graduation rate of 78.3 percent, a number that fell to 62.5 percent in 2020.

With just 22 seniors last year, Cascade Superintendent Jeff Blaser said several led to the drop in the school’s graduation rate. Two fifth-year students fell short of their credit requirements after school closures made it difficult to make up certain classes.

Blaser also noted that Cascade has a “transient population of families” who live in the district seasonally.

“We also have a very large number of vacation second homes,” he said. “Over the past several years, families move to the area and live in the second home for a period of time, then move when the snow flies.”

Blaser said families don’t always follow the proper checkout protocol for the school, making it impossible to track where some students are. The check-out process hadn’t been a priority in recent years, but the district now has a standardized online registration and check-out process for all students.

“I am confident we have a sound educational strategic plan and are moving toward our goals to have a 100 percent graduation rate in the near future,” Blaser said.

Gilbert said Payette saw a rise in SAT scores this fall, and is hopeful that will translate to a higher graduation rate.

EdNews data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this story. 

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