MORE SANTA CLARA County students are crossing the stage to get their diplomas than years past, and education leaders hope to keep the momentum going.

High school graduation rates for the 2021-22 school year increased across Santa Clara County’s largest school districts, data from the California State Dashboard reveals. Rates also went up for vulnerable student groups, such as low-income students and students of color.

The trend is welcomed as school districts continue to contend with post-pandemic issues, such as spikes in chronic absenteeism, increases in student mental health needs and drops in test scores. Ensuring more students graduate means simultaneously dealing with other education inequities, officials said.

Resilience through adversity

Teresa Marquez, East Side Union High School District associate superintendent of educational services, said emergency state laws such as AB 104, which was only effective in 2021-22, allowed students to achieve the state’s minimum requirements and get their diplomas. The law encouraged districts to give students the choice of attending a fifth year of high school or pursuing credit recovery options, which allowed students to retake failed courses and have their efforts count toward graduation.

Marquez credits resilience among staff and students through distance learning as factors toward success. East Side Union High School District’s low-income students had a graduation rate of 84.5 percent in 2018-19 and increased to 85.5 percent in 2021-22. For Latino students, that number increased from 81.4 percent to 83.8 percent, and for Black students, graduation rates jumped from 79.9 percent to 83.5 percent. The district also ensured all students fully understood graduation requirements by working closely with counselors, Marquez said.

“Our counselors did a great job of meeting with students… to ensure (they got ) what they needed, whether it was academically, behaviorally or social-emotionally,” she told San José Spotlight.

Jennifer Orlick, director of strategy, accountability and innovation for Campbell Union High School District, said graduation and diplomas are a district’s basic responsibilities. The district is expanding its summer bridge program, to help incoming freshmen students transition to a high school curriculum and schedule, as well as expanding credit recovery options for the winter and spring breaks, she added.

“It starts before students even show up at our schools,” Orlick told San José Spotlight. “We’re really trying to get much better at providing multiple opportunities throughout the year.”

Despite the challenges of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Orlick said federal stimulus funds allowed the district to invest in credit recovery programs that supported graduation. The district’s low-income students had a graduation rate of 84.8 percent in 2018-19 and increased to 89.2 percent in 2021-22. Santa Clara County districts pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds that were applied toward this effort. But those monies will soon end, and the district will need state funds and local school measures to support credit recovery and summer learning programs down the line, she said.

“We anticipate it’ll put students on better footing (and) the future should continue to support graduation rates,” Orlick told San José Spotlight.  “It starts before students even show up at our schools.”

Learning less, graduating more

UC Berkeley School of Education professor Bruce Fuller said high graduation rates aren’t enough if students continue to battle pandemic learning loss. While graduation rates are still on the rise, test scores plummeted across county school districts during the pandemic, disproportionately impacting low-income students.

“It’s a contradiction: the kids are learning less, but they’re graduating at a higher rate,” Fuller told San José Spotlight.

East Side Union High School District Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee said graduation rates are intertwined with learning progress in earlier grades and will remain an issue to address.

“We know that during COVID there were kindergarteners, first graders, second graders all throughout our system that were deprived, or did not experience in-person education at critical times in their development,” Vander Zee told San José Spotlight. “The state is still going to have to think through the long-term implications of COVID in terms of learning loss.”

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at loan-anh@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.

Loan-Anh Pham | San Jose Spotlight

San Jose Spotlight