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Drop-out dilemma

Christine Ina Casillas
Dean BeaconThe students who struggle the most in school are the secondary-language learners, said Anne Leavitt, a counselor at Eagle Valley High School.
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Despite the fall in numbers, drop-out rates remain a dilemma, said Gary Rito, director of secondary education for the school district.

“It’s a primary problem, and we’re not taking it lightly,” Rito said.



Rito looks at the drop-out rates from a socio-economic point of view, he said. Unfortunately, the majority of students who drop out of school are Hispanic.

“There are more Hispanics who drop out of school than non-Hispanics,” he said.



“Hispanic kids in general do not achieve as well as the Caucasian kids,” he said. “All through school, the lowest performers are the Hispanic kids. Oftentimes, though, we cannot control what happens to these kids prior to school.”

In Rito’s experience, many of the white students are from a two-parent household and the parents are educated. They read to their children and the kids enter the school system well-prepared and up-to-speed with the rest of their peers.

Language barriers



The students who struggle the most in school are the secondary-language learners, said Anne Leavitt, a counselor at Eagle Valley High School.

Rito also said he’s not immune to the fact that language barriers hold many students back.

A lot of students who come into the school system speak Spanish but cannot read or write in Spanish well, he said. To transition students from Spanish to English is equally difficult because of that language barrier.

On one hand, when it comes to testing, many students who test in Spanish surpass students who test in English, Rito said. The scores, often, are even higher than the rest of the state.

The problem, however, with test scores is that the Colorado Student Assessment Program only tests Spanish-speaking students in third and fourth grades. After that, the tests are given in English.

“If the student doesn’t take the test, he or she will get a zero,” he said.

Rito also likens the language barriers to that of the barriers between males and females. For years, female students were encouraged to take home economics and English class, enter the field of education and become a teacher. Males were told to take science and mathematics, and enter technology fields, become doctors or scientists.

“There’s still some remnant of the glass ceiling, but it’s getting better,” he said.

But Rito also said there’s a gap with Spanish surnames, where the students are born in the U.S., but still either drop out or produce low test scores.

“It’s very disturbing to me,” he said. “Because they don’t have the language problems in their background.”

Financial pressure

Leavitt said she has seen students whose parents moved to the valley for a better lifestyle only to find higher expenses and a tremendous amount of financial pressure.

“The drop outs live here for only a short period of time,” she said.

Unfortunately, many other families keep students from finishing school and many drop outs are from low-income families.

“It’s a function of poverty more than anything else,” Rito said. “Not everyone has that advantage of staying in school. A lot of students drop out in order to help out and support their families by getting a job.”

The problem with poverty, Rito said, is that both parents might work to support the family, or the child might come from a one-parent household who works to support the family.

“With the poverty problem, the kids are read to too much, and they start school already behind the eight ball,” he said.

But Rito said it’s not entirely the student’s fault or the parent’s fault that the students are not getting the backing at home.

“Who’s accountable for these kids,” he said. “Who takes these kids under their wing and shows them the way? It’s hard for everybody.

“It’s hard for the teachers because they have 100 or more students per day. The parents would love it, but it’s hard for the parents, as well.”

Achievement gaps

Leavitt also said that academics – as opposed to athletics, for example – is the primary gauge of a student’s achievement. And Rito said the school district should take part of the blame for the student’s lack of achievement.

“It’s partially our fault because we don’t hold these kids at the same expectation of achievement,” he said. “We might not be pushing these kids hard enough to get them to that level of achievement.”

The school curriculum also should include vocational classes, or any class, that pushes the students to achievement, he said. And the district has been striving for that goal.

Sometimes, some programs have been axed from the curriculum because of funding and other problems, he said. The district offered an automotive class but the teacher resigned in the middle of the year. Other classes were cancelled because not enough students signed up.

“It’s important for us to look at pieces of school that meet the needs of all the kids,” he said.

Another reason some kids drop out what Rito called the “achievement gap.” The “achievement gap” describes students whose grades aren’t as high as their peers.

“When the achievement gap starts early – in elementary school or middle school – it compounds itself year after year,” he said. “The kids will decide to drop out and get a job instead.”

Some students begin to think about dropping out as early as middle school, he said.

“Kids get frustrated by low test scores, low grades and think about dropping out as early as eighth grade,” he said. “They can’t drop out then because of the law, but as soon as they turn 16, they’re gone.

“We need to start catching these kids’ interests before they start to think about dropping out.”

Students are required by law to stay in school until they are at least 16 years old.

A place to call home

Red Canyon High School has provided an alternative to the drop-out trend.

“Red Canyon has definitely filled the gap for us to stop students from dropping out,” Leavitt said.

About four years ago, the Eagle County Board of Education started a search for an alternative high school to address the drop-out rates and help troubled students fit into a traditional system.

“We have a pretty good handle on a problem that’s facing every school all over the nation,” said Mark Strakbein, principal of Red Canyon High School.

Red Canyon became a full-fledged, accredited high school dedicated to the success of the students, Strakbein said.

The first year the school opened, the graduation rate was low, he said.

“It was more about the kids buying into the program and getting their feet on the ground,” he said.

Last year, the graduation rate increased to more than 70 percent, he said.

“We not only take the at-risk kids but the diverse learners and the kids who don’t really get along at the traditional schools,” he said. “The drop-out rates are going down, and the graduation rates are going up.”

Christine Ina Casillas can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607 or at ccasillas@vaildaily.com.

Drop-out rate difficult to figure

By Christine Ina Casillas

The drop-out rate in Eagle County is 20 percent above the state average, a figure that’s not entirely acceptable, said Gary Rito, director of secondary education for the school district.

But the drop-out rates can get skewed, Rito added.

“When we get the results of how many drop-outs we get, the numbers are impure anyway,” he said. “If one student drops out, it’s more than we want.”

The numbers are figured like this: When a student enters the school year as a freshman, he or she is accounted for in four years. If the numbers don’t match at the end of the four years, the student is considered a drop out.

“Some kids go back to Mexico without much notice, and they don’t require records in school there, so these kids are in a black-hole status and considered a drop out,” Rito said.

The school district tries to contact students if they leave the district,

whether the students move to a different city, county or country.


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