When graduation rates were released last month, Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez wasn’t surprised to see a small drop in the district’s four-year cohort graduation rate.

In May 2021, BCS hit a district-wide rate of 74.7 percent, down from 2020’s 76.3 percent.

“Frankly, it’s better than we thought it was going to be,” Sanchez said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted everything from grocery shopping to going to the movies in March 2020, the fate of that year’s senior class was pretty much set with only two months left in the school year.

Returning to classes in the fall of the 2020-21 school was full of challenges — remote learning was still being fine tuned, in-person classes were strained by COVID restrictions and sometimes called off completely as schools and districts moved back to remote classes.

While the overall district rate decreased, Sanchez points out the rate for its alternative high school — Infinity High School — increased from 41.2 percent in 2020 to 48.3 in 2021.

“You ask yourself the question of why. Was it because of the programming that Infinity already had where it’s a blended learning model? Where students could take advantage of online learning with Edgenuity along with in-person learning?” the superintendent pondered. “I don’t have the answer but that’s definitely one of the questions to ask.”

Belen High School’s graduation rate dropped two points, from 79.4 percent to 77.5 for the class of 2021.

When graduation rates are released every year, most of the focus is on the traditional four-year cohorts of students, however the New Mexico Public Education Department does track the five and six year cohort rates.

For the 2019 and 2020 BHS five-year cohorts, graduation rates were 81 and 81.7 percent, respectively, with IHS at 48.8 and 39.7 percent in those same two years. Data for the five- and six-year cohorts of 2021 isn’t available yet.

“The mind set has always been and, we continue it, is that ‘It’s OK.’ I’ve had conversations with students even as superintendent that it’s OK. If you don’t graduate this year, that does not mean, ‘Oh, time’s up. I have to leave.’ Our goal is to get you to graduate. We have up to six years,” Sanchez said.

“Our goal is to just get them to graduate, because we understand the positive effect of having a high school diploma can have on their future. It’s taking away the stigma that can exist when you don’t graduate in those four years. Sometimes it just takes a little longer, so those were exciting numbers also.”

Looking at the number of students who graduate later is going to be important going forward due to the large number of students whose education was interrupted by the pandemic, he said.

“In my opinion, it is going to increase the numbers students that are going to be in those five and six year cohorts,” the superintendent said.

Moving graduation rates higher starts years before students are in high school. Sanchez said.

“We’re working to improve, starting at kindergarten, to see a steady climb,” he said. “It starts off with the early childhood literacy initiative from PED. They get a lot of criticism, but I really think they’ve hit the ball out of the park.”

Continued training for teachers is also key, he said, which provides consistency in the district’s approach to literacy.

The rule of thumb is kindergarten through second grade is when students should be learning to read, Sanchez said.

“Once they hit third grade, if they’re at grade level with their reading then they’re reading to learn,” he said. “If we’re not doing that work at the early levels, then we’re going to have kids who aren’t ready.”

Early intervention, before students have failing grades, is also a key component to higher graduation rates, the superintendent said.

“If a student is struggling, we want to catch it before things become discouraging for the student,” he said.

Sanchez said as much as the district can do to ensure student success, parents and families of students play key role in advancing and graduating from high school.

“The biggest thing I want parents to understand is the importance of their students coming to school. We have to take advantage of every minute we have,” he said. “Our job is to make sure that we’re utilizing those minutes in an effective manner and make the learning in such a way that students want to be engaged. We can have the greatest show on earth but if we don’t have an audience, it doesn’t matter.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.