COLORADO SPRINGS — High school can be a challenging time for students, and now some must add pandemic precautions to their senior year, while educators try everything to make sure dropout rates don't spike next semester.
Sierra High School operates on an e-learning model, meaning parents can choose to keep their children home every day of the week if they would like. There is also a hybrid in-person model offered, where students are divided up into two groups, which alternate the days of the week they are in the classroom. All students in that model are on campus for two days a week, and online for three. "It's definitely not something that I would have been able to handle well as a senior in high school, and I think our students are showing so much maturity, and so much love and support for each other," said Principal Nicole Schurbon, who has been both a student and staff member at Sierra High School.
There are various coronavirus precautions in place at Sierra High School, like a controlled flow of foot traffic and hand sanitizer throughout the building. "Surprisingly to some, we have heard begging from students to come back full time... We're working on how do we safely bring more students back to that full time schedule," said Dr. Wendy Birhanzel, the superintendent of Harrison District 2.
News5 spoke with two seniors at Sierra High School, who said they do not know of anyone considering dropping out of school this year. "But, there are some of my friends that maybe don't do their school work," said Arianna Reyes, who has been a student at Sierra High School for all four years of high school.
Another senior, Ashley Cher Samonte, said remote learning can be frustrating at times. "It was definitely harder for me... Being at home all the time, and just having the teacher in the computer, you can turn off the computer any time you want, you can go on your phone any time you want, and you can always eat or do something else other than paying attention in class," said Samonte.
Samonte said she is very involved in school, but still finds herself struggling with her grades as a result of online classes. "My grades have never looked as bad... I was on the struggle bus, I would say. But, since I started coming more and more into school, my grades definitely rose up, just because of that," said Samonte.
Samonte also provided some insight into jokes commonly heard from friends. "I think a lot of people tend to joke around like, 'I'm just going to drop out this is too hard,' or, 'Oh my god this is too boring, I'm just going to drop out and do something else.' But I don't think they actually mean it, but in a way, they are kind of saying that this is too difficult for some people to handle," said Samonte.
Principal Schurbon said Sierra High School has been working on improving their graduation rate for years now. According to Schurbon, their graduation rate is around 80%, which is higher than the state average.
However, she did say the decreased in-person interaction with students is concerning this year. "We refuse to let COVID be the reason that our students don't graduate. And even against all those odds, I believe that our staff and our students and our community will be able to rally, and we'll still see those record number graduation rates," said Principal Schurbon.
The most recent dropout rate numbers are from the 2018-2019 school year in Colorado. For the entire state, the dropout rate is 2%, with Harrison School District 2 coming in right below that figure at 1.9%. Sierra High School's dropout rate was 3.6%, according to state records.
Plus, the superintendent for Harrison School District 2 said they are seeing students disconnect from learning all over the county. "When you look at student attendance across El Paso County, we know we're down thousands of students. We know they haven't just gone to online schooling. And so, they're choosing to not engage in schooling at all, and that's a big concern for our community here in El Paso County... We need to get those students back in some kind of educational setting. And so, when we think about we shut down in March, so we've already had some gap last year, now we're coming into a new year and having another year of gap, these students are in crisis and we need to find them and make sure that we support them in their educational journey," said Dr. Birhanzel.
Sierra High School has one-on-one meetings where seniors can learn about college and career skills, as well as a "Decision Day" in May where seniors stand up in front of their peers and declare what they will do after graduation. "We've seen that really spring on, this idea of I am doing something, I am going somewhere, and students from the southeast side of Colorado Springs are successful," said Principal Schurbon.
Principal Schurbon said this year, there is also a focus on teachers frequently communicating with parents. "You're going to call your students in your advisory, you're going to call your students who are failing, you're going to call and schedule those parent-teacher conferences. We are making communicating and connecting with our parents a primary goal this year," said Schurbon.
In addition, flexible schedules for certain students are necessary this year. "We've heard from some who are caring for siblings, or they're having to pick up a job to help pay for rent, or to pay for food. And so, how do we provide them a flexible schedule where they can still take care of what they need at home with their family, but also get their education and know that we're here to support them," said Dr. Birhanzel.
While it may be a more difficult senior year than expected, everyone News5 talked to at Sierra High School said building connections is important. "It's always good to make those friends and have those teachers that you can talk to, because high school is hard... Patience is key and you have to have patience in these times. Especially, there's a lot of technical errors, when you're doing your homework or things like that. You just have to be patient," said Reyes.
CLICK HERE to learn more about what the state recommends for engaging students during the pandemic.