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Credit: Christina Capasso / Aspen Journalism

BASALT – Graduation and dropout rates are improving in Colorado, and the positive trend lines are, for the most part, holding true in the Aspen and Roaring Fork school districts.

Broadly speaking, fewer Colorado students are dropping out of public schools and more are graduating on time from high school, according to new numbers from the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado’s 2013-14 dropout rate was 2.4 percent, according to the Education Department, versus 2.5 percent in 2012-13. That equates to 118 fewer dropouts. And these year-to-year numbers continue a trend that’s been steady since 2008, when the statewide dropout rate was 3.8 percent.

“There is cause for optimism in these steadily improving results,” said Rebecca Holmes, associate commissioner for innovation, choice and engagement at the Colorado Department of Education. “Many districts are doing remarkable work to move more and more students toward readiness for the day after high school graduation, even if that means giving them more than four years to get there.”

The class of 2014 achieved a 77.3 percent graduation rate, an uptick from the 2013 rate of 76.9 percent. This equates to 730 more graduates in 2014 than the year before.

(See statewide maps of graduation and dropout data by school district).

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Credit: Christina Capasso / Aspen Journalism

Local trends

These statewide trends are reflected in the Aspen and Roaring Fork districts, both of which are performing better than state averages with lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates.

From 2012 to 2014, Aspen’s dropout rate has gone from 0.6 to 0.3 to 0.1 percent. During the same period, the Roaring Fork School District, which runs schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, went from 2.1 to 1.8 percent, where it held steady in both 2013 and 2014.

Julia Roark, assistant superintendent for the Aspen schools, said a lot of factors play into graduation and dropout rates, but Aspen has a leg up in many respects.

“Here, kids are pretty much expected to go to college,” she said. “I’ve been in other places — New Mexico, Texas, in areas with higher poverty levels — and this is a much greater challenge. You’re talking about families and culture; it’s a much more complicated issue.”

Across Colorado, Roark said, school officials are focused on teaching students to look beyond high school and to prepare for either college or careers. She sees the rising graduation rates as a “very positive sign” of both an improving economy and some smart moves by school officials.

“A lot of high schools have tried to create a college-going culture so students can see it’s not just about making it to the end of high school,” she said. “I also really believe the educators working within the schools have gained greater knowledge and skill on how to help the kids at risk of dropping out. They’re reaching out to other resources in their communities.”

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Credit: Christina Capasso / Aspen Journalism

The gaps

Still, “achievement gaps” remain between different groups of students around the state. For example, female students have a higher graduation rate (81 percent) than their male counterparts (73.7 percent).

The Department of Education also cites considerable variation across different ethnic groups when it comes to graduation: Asian students (84.7 percent), white students (83.2 percent), Hawaiian and Pacific islanders (73.4 percent), black students (69 percent), Latino students (66.7 percent) and Native Americans (60.7 percent).

Within specific districts, the Department of Education website doesn’t break down the graduation data for each ethnic group but does provide a “minority” graduation rate.

In the Aspen district, for example, the 2014 graduation rate for all students was 99.3 percent, while the minority graduation rate was 100 percent. In the Roaring Fork district, which includes four high schools (Basalt, Roaring Fork, Glenwood Springs and Bridges), the 2014 graduation rate for all students was 83.1 percent. The 2014 graduation rate for minority students was 74.5 percent.

These figures represent gradual improvement for the Roaring Fork district, which has a far more diverse student population than Aspen. Rob Stein, assistant superintendent for the Roaring Fork district, characterized the rising graduation rates as “good news.”

“One easy thing to do to increase graduation rates is to decrease your rigor,” Stein said.

The fact that the district’s graduation rates are rising alongside students’ scores on the ACT test, which measures college readiness, is especially encouraging, he added.

“It’ll take us awhile to be in the perfect zone, but we’re making progress,” Stein said.

When it comes to dropout rates, no members of Aspen’s small minority population dropped out in 2014, which meant a dropout rate of zero. In the Roaring Fork district, the minority dropout rate was 2.6 percent.

Many factors play into these differences. The Roaring Fork district certainly has much higher numbers of minority students and English-language learners. The downvalley district also has vastly higher percentages of low-income families.

In the Aspen district, just 5.6 percent of students qualify for subsidized school lunches; in the Roaring Fork district, that figure is roughly seven times higher at 40 percent.

Too often, school officials say, ethnicity and demographics play a disproportional role in children’s learning.

“We should all be learning from the outstanding schools and districts where a student’s demographics do not determine their educational outcomes,” Holmes said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of local schools. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent, a sister publication of The Times, published this story on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2014.