Did pandemic learning impact 2022 graduation rates?

Several Southern Arizona School districts report graduation counts
KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: May. 31, 2022 at 10:33 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Finally, they’re back to the closest thing to normal.

Three Desert View High School students closed the year on campus and maskless after three school years of pandemic impacted education.

KOLD has been talking with Juniors Ariana Zuniga and Madisynn Marsh as well as Senior Christopher Flores throughout the school year.

After many unexpected changes in direction, Flores finally stepped off the high school social, emotional, academic rollercoaster ride.

“I’m like, ‘how am I going to stay of top of this?’ And at times my grades were even slipping because of how tired I was, how late I was being in my assignments. And luckily though I was able to bounce back from it,” Flores said.

He’s one of three 2022 Class Valedictorians. The three way tie is a first for the district.

“Being back in person and seeing things in front of you has made it a lot easier,” Marsh said.

Motivation had been hard for the two juniors as schooling took unprecedented twists and turns moving from remote to hybrid back to remote since their Freshman year when that grade level is just learning how to navigate high school.

Many teachers in all grades had been more empathetic with assignment deadlines during the pandemic.

“I know they’ve really enabled the teachers to be able to do what they need to,” said Flores. “They’ve been flexible and a lot of teachers have done that.”

Other teachers pressured students this year to maintain or return to pre-pandemic rules.

“Especially in my A-P classes,” said Zuniga. “I don’t want to call any teachers out, but you know, AP US History, there’s so much work, but great teacher. I was able to realize that I can do this, you know countless hours of studying and doing this work.”

“I think we’ve rebounded. I think we’re coming back better. I think after being online, we’ve hit rock bottom and now we’re coming back up to even better,” Marsh said.

Learning improved with routines back in place and for many students a new appreciation for school.

That resilience appears to be reflected in the 2022 graduation rates at the traditional high schools in Sunnyside and other Southern Arizona districts.

The Sunnyside grad rate increased by 3%, from 86% in 2019 to 89% in 2022.

After contacting all districts, Tanque Verde, Flowing Wells, Nogales, Marana reported back with the same or better graduation rates than 2019.

Catalina Foothills fell slightly in 2022.

Two districts with fully online or non-traditional schools, Flowing Wells and Sunnyside, report a dramatic drop in grad rates: 24% in Flowing Wells and 11% in Sunnyside.

Sunnyside, the poorest district in the region, ended the year with a record number of college scholarship awards.

“Those are certainly encouraging that we’re somewhat back on track,” Superintendent Steve Holmes said.

He attributes that in part to the pressure the district put on students and staff to return to pre-pandemic rigor.

Many districts reported using varying strategies to tackle staff shortages, chronic absenteeism, and high rates of course failure.

“I feel like a few of my fellow classmates have definitely not rebounded. And they’re so used to being in a situation of like teachers being more lenient, because you know of the pandemic and of it’s a rough time,” Zuniga said.

Many districts relied on a controversial approach: credit recovery classes designed to help students avoid retaking courses or attending summer school.

Holmes will be looking into state assessment data, ACT scores, during the summer to help determine whether his district’s strategies worked.

“So that will be Junior year data, even though we’ve given ACT, this is the first time it’s going to be a statewide assessment. So that’s going to be interesting to see what that data looks like once they come in for our junior class,” Holmes said.

Meantime, this year Holmes boasts that he’s “very proud of this graduating class. I think they exceeded our expectations” helping to possibly put to rest concerns over the worth of this year’s high school diploma.

“A lot of people tell me ‘hey this diploma isn’t worth as much as the other ones because you had it easy during the pandemic’. Well, yeah, some things were easier to do like the homework, but the mental costs they came at was so substantial. The isolation, the self-reliance, it just took such a heavy mental hit on so many people that I think the cost balanced out,” Flores said.

Balanced out with new skills that have yet to be fully measured.

KOLD still waiting for graduation rates from the remaining Southern Arizona districts, including TUSD, the region’s largest school district.

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