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As opportunity gaps widen, can Michigan reverse the graduation rate downturn?

A balloon that reads “Class of 2021” floats in the audience of a graduation.

Graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students declined by 2.8 percentage points between 2020 and 2021.

Carson TerBush / Chalkbeat

La’Neiya Jackson was two math courses away from qualifying to graduate from Mumford High School in Detroit when the pandemic hit. But her progress ground to a halt when classes shifted online in March 2020.

“A lot of things you were self-taught all of a sudden, it made the work harder, and it got depressing,” she recalled.

Without a prom or graduation ceremony to look forward to, she couldn’t get motivated. She dropped out and got a job.

Jackson’s experience in the spring of 2020 was an early hint of the toll the pandemic would take on Michigan high schoolers. The state’s high school graduation rate fell by 1.6 percentage points between 2020 and 2021, the first decline in years. What’s worse, gaps between the state’s most vulnerable students and their peers broadened. The graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students fell by 2.8 points between 2020 and 2021. The rate for Black males during that period fell by 3.2 points, and homeless students’ graduation rate fell 5.7 points.

Those numbers illustrate the urgency of Michigan’s pandemic recovery efforts in education. More than any other education data point, graduation rates have a direct bearing on students’ ability to live a decent life. Without a high school diploma, statistics show, their expected lifetime earnings plummet, while their odds of becoming entangled in the criminal justice system shoot up.

“They have two feet in the hole now before they’ve even started, and we’re talking about 17-year-old people whose lives are really only just beginning,” said Ellen Gilchrist, senior director of K-12 Education and Community at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “You’re talking about a part of a generation of kids who are not going to be ready for what’s coming in life.”

What will it take to get would-be pandemic dropouts back on track? 

Michigan districts have long tried to prevent dropouts by using credit recovery programs, typically online classes that allow students to make up missed work at their own pace under adult supervision. Those programs continued across the state over the last year.

But experts warn that such programs — which employ some of the same types of on-screen instruction that students had during pandemic closures — may not be enough to reverse last year’s graduation rate decline. 

“The question is whether we’re going to make a priority out of these kids who had two years of their lives absolutely disrupted,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, a nonpartisan think tank that aims to increase educational attainment.

To Glazer, that means offering students more than classes on a screen. He pointed to recent research showing that students, especially high-schoolers, are often kept in school by their engagement with extra-curricular activities. He suggested that all-day summer programs rich with activities beyond academic classes might be a way to help get some young people across the finish line.

Gilchrist agreed that online learning is not well-suited to addressing Michigan’s declining graduation rate.

“We’re talking about kids who struggled with online learning,” she said. “Online credit recovery platforms are just more of the same problem.”

Declining graduation rates during the pandemic were not inevitable. While overall graduation rates trended lower nationwide last year, some cities, including New York and Chicago, saw their number rise.

Ryan McLeod, superintendent of Eastpointe Community Schools in the Detroit suburbs, said many students got off track for graduation during the first year of the pandemic because they struggled to focus and complete tasks while learning without an in-person teacher. 

In response, his district made changes to its normal credit recovery program. Unlike in previous years, the district paid teachers to staff the credit recovery rooms after school, offering students support and help with concepts they didn’t understand.

“We recognized that we couldn’t just put a kid on a computer and expect to get more than we were getting previously,” McLeod said.

Eastpointe’s graduation rate ticked up 1.7 percentage points during the pandemic.

Increasing students’ contact with teachers is one clear way to help them successfully get to a diploma, said Jack Elsey, CEO of the Detroit Children’s Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. Reaching out to students early when they begin failing a class, and even visiting them at home, are also proven methods.

But he cautioned that those approaches often require hiring more staff, something districts nationwide are struggling to do.

“There are some common sense responses, but there’s the question of whether the (labor) market could bear those solutions at this particular time,” he said.

Wayne-Westland Community Schools, another Detroit suburban district, saw its graduation rate drop 7.6 points this year. Now it’s experimenting with alternative summer school programming to get students reengaged with school and help them finish high school.

“Kids sitting in a hot room and they don’t want to be there — that old model is not appropriate,” said John Dignan, Wayne-Westland superintendent. “Instead let’s put them in summer internships, offer field trips and opportunities to visit colleges and apprenticeships.” He said students ought to be able to get high school credit for summer work.

Gilchrist, too, suggested that students could complete coursework as part of paid job training programs.

“Can kids be paid over the summer when they’re doing credit recovery?” she asked. “Can we infuse workforce development into this, and internships and programs that inspire kids to want to move forward?”

For Jackson, the Mumford student, the inspiration to get back to school came from workplace experience of a different kind. After she left school, she put in long shifts at an automotive plant and as a server at Applebee’s. 

“Now that I’ve been in the workforce, I know you can’t really progress or get higher anywhere in the job force without at least a high school diploma,” she said. “You can’t make more than $15 an hour without a high school diploma.”

She resumed work on her final credits this fall, enrolling at Covenant House Academy, a charter school that specializes in working with students who have struggled to graduate. The school mixes online lessons with in-person tutoring and traditional classroom instruction.

Jackson says she is on track to graduate in June. She plans to become a flight attendant.

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at klevin@chalkbeat.org.

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