Columbus City Schools work to get seniors 'on track' to graduate despite COVID

Alissa Widman Neese
The Columbus Dispatch
Only about  55% of Columbus seniors were on track to graduate, earlier this month. District officials and nonprofit groups, such as IMPACT Community Action, pictured here, are helping students throughout central Ohio overcome academic and other challenges. In this photo, Groveport Madison senior Roman Conley, 18, talks to recruitment and engagement specialist Lily Ng during a senior brunch at the group's South Side center.

When he learned his senior year of high school would be happening on a computer, it didn't take long for Jalen Walker to lose the motivation to keep his grades up.

"I was very behind. I wasn't even bothering to open my computer," said the 18-year-old, who attends Eastmoor Academy High School. "I didn't adjust well."

He credits IMPACT Community Action, a South Side nonprofit group that is helping students navigate online schooling, with helping him regain his confidence. Walker has passed online credit-recovery classes to get back on track, and is set to walk across the stage with his classmates at graduation, he said.

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But much of the Class of 2021 is still struggling to reach that milestone.

As of May 4, only slightly more than 55% of district seniors are on track to graduate in June, according to data provided by Columbus City Schools. District officials and partners throughout the city, like IMPACT, say they're working hard to offer support, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Class of 2021 to overcome obstacles no other class has confronted before.

'On track' means no failing grades or credit recovery

The on-track figures vary significantly between the district's 20 high schools, ranging from about 35% at Mifflin, 36% at West and 38% at Columbus North International to nearly 78% at Centennial and 88% at Columbus Alternative. Eastmoor, where Walker attends, is just under 62%.

The district currently enrolls more than 2,700 seniors, based on the data it provided.

Team manager Katie Trausch helps Eastmoor sophomore Keaunya Stewart, 15, fill out an application for the Achieve More & Prosper program at IMPACT Community Action's South Side center earlier this month. The program provides mentorship and direction to young people aged 16-24 looking to finish high school and start a career path.

Students are considered on track if they're passing all courses required for graduation, require no credit recovery and have not failed any first-semester courses, district spokeswoman Jacqueline Bryant said. "On track" and "off track" are internal measurements the district uses.

The numbers are expected to change just before graduation, because if seniors are taking a credit-recovery class in their final semester, they will be labeled off track until the school year ends and they pass it, Bryant said. Students can also take credit-recovery classes in the summer, graduate in August, and still be considered on-time, four-year graduates.

The district's four-year graduation rate was 81% for the Class of 2019, 82% for 2018 and 78% in 2017, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Graduation rates for the Class of 2021 will be part of the state report cards released in fall 2022. This fall's report cards will reflect rates for the Class of 2020.

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“It’s a problem if kids aren’t graduating,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington. “Getting a diploma is not destiny forming, but the data connecting diploma recipients to adult outcomes is overwhelming."

High school graduates are more likely to go to college and have higher earnings, he said.

This year's on-track figures are lower-than-expected, according to the district, despite some requirements being relaxed for this year's seniors. For instance, they won't need to complete an internship or technology credit, two district requirements that go beyond state graduation requirements, and the state has waived some tests and offered other flexibility. 

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Columbus City Schools has not previously monitored how many seniors were "on track" to graduate, Bryant said.

"This was put in place this year due to the pandemic and developing supports for seniors," she said in an email to The Dispatch.

Goldhaber speculates that high school graduation rates will be higher this year overall, once finalized, across the country since many districts like Columbus have waived some of their graduation requirements. 

“That may seem counterintuitive,” he said. “I would think there are some kids at least that might not have passed those requirements, at least in terms of on-time graduation, that will graduate because they are waived.”

Some students struggle with at-home, 'blended learning' 

It's difficult to generalize exactly what is holding students back because the factors impacting them vary so greatly, officials say.

Some, like Walker, are struggling to adjust to a learning environment they've never experienced before. Until March, seniors spent the entire academic year attending classes online from home, as well as the final three months of their junior year. Now they're finishing the year in a "blended learning" mode, with classes in-person twice a week and classes online the other three days.

Others are supervising and assisting younger siblings at home, who were also learning fully online until February.

Some have lost family members to COVID-19. Others are taking on jobs to help support families that have lost jobs or income due to the economic recession the virus caused, which leaves them little time to focus on classes.

"We're finding that a lot of our high school seniors have had to take on adult responsibilities," said Alesia Gillison, chief engagement officer for Columbus City Schools. "We are continuing to support our kids, encourage our kids, to ensure they have those social and emotional supports that they need."

The issue isn't exclusive to Columbus.

A study of U.S. high schools by the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access found that in spring 2020, students enrolled in schools with a high concentration of poverty were more likely than their peers to experience heightened challenges associated with COVID-19, which made it difficult to keep up with coursework and in contact with educators.

School data may reflect communities' economic challenges

Kenny Lee, director of secondary curriculum for Columbus City Schools, said principals are creating targeted interventions for seniors that vary from school-to-school, including opportunities for credit recovery, which can be completed either online or in-person. 

Data from some high schools may reflect the economic challenges of the communities in which they're located, though that's not the case for every school. Mifflin High School, which had the lowest on-track rate (35%), also has the most children living in poverty in its neighborhood ZIP code, at 56%, according to U.S. Census data. Centennial, which had the highest "on-track" rate for neighborhood schools (nearly 78%), had the lowest child poverty rate, at just 4.5%. The state average is 19.9%.

Nieme Banks, manager of the IMPACT Community Action learning extension center, talks to senior Josius Sharp, an 18,-year-old charter school student, during a senior brunch at the South Side center earlier this month. Banks says it's important to build trust and mutual respect with students, especially coming off such an isolating year as 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But many schools enroll students outside their neighborhoods, because in Columbus, families can apply for their children to be put into a lottery and attend a school outside their enrollment boundary.

Five Columbus high schools enroll only lottery students: Columbus Africentric Early College, Columbus Alternative, Columbus North International, Eastmoor and Fort Hayes Arts and Academic.

Community partnerships aim to connect with students

Partnerships with community groups are often key to connecting with students, Gillison said.

Eboney Elridge, a program manager with Communities in Schools of Ohio, said the nonprofit is helping seniors push past the finish line, despite many of them feeling overwhelmed. The group places employees within schools to help them overcome challenges outside the classroom that impact academic success.

"We're asking them to be first-year students in their last year, to be successful with online learning even though they've had no real experience with that environment," Elridge said.

Many students are also feeling discouraged by milestones they've missed, she said.

Nieme Banks, manager of the IMPACT Community Action learning extension center, said a big part of motivating students is building trust and mutual respect. That's why the center offers them a moment to speak freely about how they feel, rather than focusing solely on academics, he said.

That's especially important during a year when so many kids are feeling isolated and frustrated, he said.

"All too often, I feel like a lot of adults just kind of talk at these kids, and they speak on their behalf without really listening," Banks said.

Rowan Conley, a Groveport Madison High School senior, said this year has been challenging for many students.

"Do you know how many of my friends call me with mental breakdowns at 2 a.m. because of school?" the 18-year-old asked. "Everyone is going through it. Our mental health is the lowest it's ever been because of this stuff."

Feeling like somebody cared has been a big motivator to do better, Conley said.

Like Walker, Conley has also used credit-recovery courses to get back on track after falling behind, and leaned on the staff at IMPACT for support.

Walker recently posed for his senior photos, and he has already lined up a job post-graduation with Camp Oty'Okwa, a summer camp operated by Big Brothers Big Sisters, a nonprofit group that has also helped him, he said.

"Now, I can't keep it closed," Walker said about the laptop that was once such a stressor. "I'm looking forward to what's going to happen after I'm done. That's what's motivating me. Now I'm confident in what I'm doing. It's a big difference."

Dispatch reporter Megan Henry contributed to this story.