The COVID-19 pandemic has hit high school students hard across the country, with many districts reporting decreased graduation rates this year.
But in Scottsdale, it’s a different story: Early grade reports that identify students at risk indicate graduation rates will probably remain at their traditionally high levels.
When the pandemic first began, the district quickly implemented mitigation strategies and social, emotional, and academic support efforts for students and staff were expanded, Assistant Superintendent Milissa Sackos said.
She said those interventions are paying off.
“Our schools have done a fabulous job in running early grade reports and using that data for the early identification of students at risk,” Sackos said. “Once they identify the students, they’re working with students, parents, administration, and counselors.”
Schools then developed a monitoring plan for students, she said.
“So that has been consistent across all our five high schools and this is a strategy that has been used in years past as well but it’s really been, obviously heightened given COVID,” Sackos said.
According to the Arizona Department of Education, SUSD’s four-year graduation rate was around 92.3 percent for the 2018-19 school year and 93.11 percent for the 2019-20 school year.
These rates are substantially higher than the state average of 78.7 percent.
Even with the pandemic, Sackos estimated that the percentages won’t decrease by much, due to schools running those early grade reports to identify students at risk.
Early reports run after the first semester did reveal a mixed bag at the high school, including an increase in the student failure rate.
Overall, the course failure rate rose from 5 percent in the 2019-20 school year to 9 percent this year during the first semester.
But, the number of students achieving A grades also rose during the first semester.
According to the data, A’s accounted for 41 percent of overall in-person high school grades in this year and 40 percent for students in distance learning compared to 35 percent of grades last year.
Some students have still also experienced pandemic-related stress.
Like students throughout the country, many in Scottsdale have had trouble with online learning, though the first semester data showed little statistical variation between the grades achieved by in-person students and those learning at home.
Faden Shapiro, a senior at Chaparral High School, said it was hard to remain focused and keep in contact with teachers while instruction was online.
“Staying motivated was definitely one of the biggest [challenges],” he said. “Second was if there was ever an issue that I ran into with homework or just not understanding a specific lesson that I was taught, it was pretty hard to get in contact with teachers because, you know, everyone was trying to get in contact all at the same time, it definitely was harder to get that more one-on-one work with your teacher.”
Shapiro said that these issues were more prevalent in the beginning of the year when instruction was entirely online.
He said now that things are “semi back to normal” everyone has had the time to figure things out and the school has been better about offering resources to students that help them stay on track to graduate.
But some students said online learning actually made their senior year a little easier.
Dana Cordo, a senior at Chaparral High School, said she had some trouble staying engaged but there were benefits to learning from home.
“The beginning of my school year was online which was definitely kind of weird in a good way,” she said. “I’m kind of a busy person, so COVID really slowed that down and made senior year more doable.”
“A lot of it was from home so I had a lot more time for stuff, but at the same time school became really hard to be engaged in just because it was online,” Cordo said.
To combat these challenges, Sackos said that schools across the district have implemented tutoring sessions and academic support after school and on weekends.
Sackos said that despite the challenges, she takes pride in the resilience that everyone has shown during this time.
“I’m really proud of our schools and our students,” she said. “Seeing such resilience – whether it’s the staff at the campus, the students, and even our parents as partners who have really collaborated with us this year to make the best of an unfortunate situation.”