Updated: January 23, 2014 at 7:20 pm
Colorado's high school drop out rate is at its lowest point since 2003, and the El Paso county rate is also declining.
The state's beefed up efforts to keep kids in school and ensure they earn high school diplomas appears to be working, according to 2012-2013 dropout and graduation statistics released Thursday from the Colorado Department of Education.
The latest numbers add up the best combination, education leaders say: The statewide dropout rate decreased last school year, and the graduation rate increased.
Local district-wide numbers reflect the same pattern.
El Paso County's dropout rate was 2.4 percent for its 15 school districts, slightly lower than the state's 2.5 percent, according to Judith Martinez, director of dropout prevention and student engagement for the CDE.
The dropout rate is the percentage of all students enrolled in grades 7-12 who leave school without transferring to another educational program within the school year.
Research ties dropout rates to these ABCs: attendance, behavior and course failure, Martinez said.
"Students who are truant or have chronic absences, behavior incidents and fail one or more courses, particularly in the ninth grade and especially in math, tend to have higher incidents of dropout," she said.
On-time graduation rates for El Paso and Teller counties also are showing encouraging signs, Martinez said.
"There are a few spots that are below the state average, but overall, both counties are right at the state rate of 76.9 percent, or a little above," she said.
The on-time graduation rate refers to students who receive a diploma within four years of completing the eighth grade.
Harrison School District 2 improved in both areas, a testament to a reform initiative that started six years ago and has a goal of graduating at least 90 percent of students and reducing the dropout rate to zero by 2017.
The district's graduation rate is now 77.5 percent, up from 72.4 percent in the 2010-2011 school year. The dropout rate is 1.3 percent, down from 3.1 percent in 2011-2012.
"We're constantly working to make sure we're not leaving any student behind with engagement, monitoring and additional support," said Superintendent Andre Spencer. "Kudos to the kids for their hard work."
Alternative programs, such as Harrison's E3 Academy, which recovers dropouts or students at-risk of dropping out of school and helps them earn enough credits to receive a diploma, are one reason for the success, Spencer said.
The first class of 11 will graduate on Saturday.
Seventeen-year-old Scotty Fowler, said he's sure he wouldn't be graduating if it weren't for the program.
"I was so far behind. I was doing online school but wasn't motivated to do anything," he said. "E3 is the best of both worlds - it combines traditional and online school."
Colorado Springs School District 11, the region's largest district, also has a bevy of non-traditional programs that include night classes, online recovery classes, the ability to earn college credits while in high school and others to help students who don't do well in the traditional environment, said spokeswoman Devra Ashby.
The choices have led to a decline in the district's dropout rate, she said, which is 2.8 percent, down from the 3.0 percent it's held since 2010.
"We're very happy," Ashby said. "It shows we're on a downward trend and on the right track."
D-11's graduation rate, the second lowest in the region, dropped 1 point to 66 percent, but is above the 2010-2011 rate of 64.8 percent.
"The numbers can fluctuate slightly from year-to-year, which is why we look at overall trends. We're maintaining the trend of improving," Ashby said.
Smaller districts often have skewed results when looking solely at the yearly numbers, Martinez said.
"Usually if there are less than 400 students in the graduation base, you tend to see wide swings," she said.
For example, Edison 54JT posted the region's lowest graduation rate of 48.6 percent. Out of 35 seniors, 17 graduated last year. Students can work on graduating until they turn 21 years old.
Interestingly, Edison 54JT was one of the four local districts that had a dropout rate of zero percent last year, which Martinez said isn't too common and is a worthy accomplishment. The others were Hanover D-28, Miami-Yoder JT60 and Peyton 23JT.
"It's a credit to those smaller districts to be able to have that personal touch," said Rick Walter, superintendent of Miami-Yoder School District JT60, which had 16 of its 18 seniors graduate last spring.
"We're fortunate because of our size, we have the ability to do one-on-one student counseling and have the ability to interact and make a greater impact," he said.