By Dan Lacey
Upon entering a Jefferson County high school, a 9th grade student has many options for a successful future. Students may work towards their high school degree and then enter the workforce or the military. They may enroll in two-year college or vocational school. They might instead enroll in a four-year college or university, either in Colorado or at one around the nation. These are all good options for an incoming 9th grader; unfortunately, as detailed in this report, many students never reach even one of these options, and many who do complete high school are unfairly limited. The future of the average Jeffco high school student, then, is quite uncertain and by no means guaranteed to be bright. This status quo is unacceptable, and cannot be allowed to persist.
This report examines the next steps taken by students who entered Jefferson County high schools in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and who graduated, or should have graduated as the classes of 2010, 2011, and 2012, respectively. According to the Colorado Department of Education’s pupil membership statistics, a little over 20,000 students entered 9th grade at Jefferson County high schools between 2006 and 2008. CDE statistics also indicate that 4,848 of these students, or approximately 24%, were classified as eligible for free lunch and reduced lunch programs, which indicates lower socioeconomic circumstances.
According to data from A+ Denver, an education advocacy group that has examined post-secondary trends for Colorado high school students, of the approximately 20,000 students that started in the classes of 2010, 2011 and 2012, 18,055 graduated. Of these graduates, 3,142 were free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible, and 14,913 were not free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible.
Of the 4,848 free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students who entered Jeffco high schools between 2006 and 2008, only 65% graduated between 2010 and 2012; this compared to the district average graduation rate of 80%. Restated 1,700 free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students did not graduate on time or did not graduate from a Jeffco high school at all.
The results were significantly better for the 16,188 non- free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students who entered Jeffco high schools between 2006 and 2008. 1,275 students, or only 8% of the total, did not graduate from a Jeffco high school. Therefore, over a quarter of all economically disadvantaged students who began studying at Jeffco high schools between 2006 and 2008 dropped out of school, while less than 10% of students without economic disadvantages did the same.
Similar discrepancies in results existed with regards to students who did graduate from Jeffco high schools. Again, per A+ Denver, of 16,188 original non-free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students, 4,588, or 28% graduated but did not go on to pursue higher education. Among the 4,848 free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students, 1,683, or 35% of students chose not to enter college after graduation. Thus, while just over a quarter of non-free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students chose not to go to college after graduation, over a third of economically disadvantaged students made the same choice.
Similar discrepancies are seen in the college choices made by each group of students. Of the 16,188 original non-free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students, 10,325, or 64%, went on to some college after graduation, compared with only 1,459, or 30%, of the original 4,848 free and reduced lunch-eligible students. When looking at which schools these students attend there is a similar difference in the percent of students in each group who chose a top-tier college. A+ Denver notes a list of high-caliber “top-tier” schools defined as “a list of 169 colleges…that were well-ranked by US News & World Report (2012).” While 2,070, or 13%, of non- free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students from the classes of 2010 to 2012 ended up attending one of these schools, only 160, or 3%, of all free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students chose to do the same.
When the data from CDE on student economic demographics and pupil memberships are synthesized with the data from A+ Denver on graduation rates and higher-education enrollment trends, a disturbing picture emerges. Free-and-reduced-lunch students are disadvantaged across the board in Jeffco high schools. Economically disadvantaged students drop out of high school at a higher rate than their more advantaged peers, enroll in college at a lower rate, and enroll in top colleges at a rate that is lower still. Again, this is unacceptable and breaking the status quo is essential to assuring each student has equivalent access to great choices.
There are examples of success right here in Colorado. According to A+ Denver, the Denver School of Science and Technology, whose student population is 35% free-and-reduced-lunch-eligible students, sent 25% of all economically disadvantaged students to top colleges from 2010–12. Similar results were achieved from Denver’s George Washington High School IB program.
Graduation prospects and the pursuit of higher education should not be limited by one’s economic status. Many top colleges offer numerous resources to help economically disadvantaged students overcome economic barriers. It is incumbent upon Jeffco leaders to assure that the negative trends of the past are broken. Reform is needed, in order for all Jeffco high schools to provide maximum support to all their students.