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Colorado’s four-year graduation rate has been creeping upward in this decade and is nearing 80 percent, but a 2017 report released earlier this month pegs it as the seventh worst in the nation.

“Graduation rates are definitely too low, and a lot of students who should graduate don’t because they lose sight,” said Natalia Taylor, this year’s valedictorian at Mesa Ridge High School in Widefield School District 3.

The eighth annual “Building A GradNation” report, made public May 3, analyzes data from all states through the class of 2015.

Colorado’s four-year graduation rate that year was 77.3 percent, compared with the national average of 83.2 percent.

Colorado’s rate climbed to 78.9 percent in 2016.

The GradNation numbers – which reflect students who complete high school within four years of entering as freshmen – don’t present the whole picture, said Judith Martinez, the Colorado Department of Education’s director of the Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement.

“We’re learning that extended-year graduation rates are also important to look at because the conversation is about students completing high school with the skills they need for the next step,” she said.

While most students finish in four years, some – such as those with limited English-language abilities or in special education – are allowed by law to have more time to obtain credentials for a diploma.

When you look at those statistics, Colorado is holding its own, with a five-year graduation rate of 83.3 percent in 2015.

“That’s a big jump,” Martinez said. “Our story looks beyond time; it looks for efficiency and competency.”

Another factor that can skew Colorado’s statistics is that the state promotes “concurrent enrollment,” meaning high school students can take college courses as they’re earning their high school diplomas.

“They have the opportunity to stay for a fifth year but can’t be counted as graduates (in the fourth year), so it’s an unintended consequence of a great program,” said Robin Russel, graduation guidelines manager for the Colorado Department of Education.

 

Outperforming state average
The Pikes Peak region’s 17 public school districts outperformed the state average last May, collectively tallying a graduation rate of 80.4 percent.

Students quit school or do not amass enough credits to graduate for various reasons.

“A lot of students have goals in their freshman year. But over time, things get in the way, whether that’s family or a job or even just friends in a group deciding it’s not the right thing to do,” Taylor said, adding that some of her friends didn’t graduate with the class of 2017. “They don’t have someone to hold them in high school.”

Some students drop out because “they don’t connect to a lot of people, or they think school is not worthwhile,” said Julianna Mattson, valedictorian at CIVA Charter High School, an arts-focused school in Colorado Springs School District 11.

“A lot of students see they can get something out of those low-end jobs kind of easily, so some don’t see the point of graduating,” Mattson said. “Especially if they don’t know what kind of career they want.”

Colorado’s lower-than-national averages are affected by the subgroup populations of students, according to GradNation:

  • 46 percent of Colorado’s graduating class of 2015 came from low-income families. The state’s graduation rate for those students was 65.5 percent, the third worst in the nation, ahead of New Mexico and Nevada. In 2016, the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students in Colorado improved to 67.8 percent.
  • Colorado also recorded graduation rates of less than 70 percent for black and Hispanic/Latino students in 2015. But the rate for African American students increased to 71.8 percent in 2016, up from 69.8 percent in 2015.
  • Colorado is one of six states with the nation’s highest concentration of students who have limited English language skills. Those students didn’t see much improvement, moving from a graduation rate of 61.1 percent in 2015 to 61.4 percent in 2016.

“There have been gains, but more needs to be done to accelerate progress around subgroups of students,” Martinez said. “As a state, we’re committed to increasing opportunity to help students make the gains needed to graduate ready for the next step after high school.”

Alternative high schools, which serve students who have dropped out or are at risk of giving up on school due to problems such as substance abuse, adverse family situations or criminal backgrounds, also affect graduation rates and should be held more accountable for improving academic performance, the GradNation report concludes.

 

A ‘menu’ of ways to graduate
High school can “zap kids’ passions” to the extent that they “don’t think high school is the way” to find what they love doing, said Carly Harold, student body president at Sand Creek High School in Falcon School District 49.

“Some don’t think the education system is built for how their minds work,” she said.

Colorado is working to fix that. The education department issued new graduation guidelines that take effect in the fall for freshmen in the class of 2021.

While each of the state’s 178 school districts sets its own graduation rules, they now must meet or exceed the new guidelines.

The requirements are changing, Russel said, because in 2007, business owners started asking legislators to establish standard measures for students to demonstrate college or career readiness.

In 2008, work groups consisting of hundreds of educators and others with vested interests began creating a “menu” of ways students can prove they are prepared to leave their high school days behind.

For example, students will be able to earn a certificate showing mastery in a profession, post a score of 4 or higher on an International Baccalaureate exam, pass an Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam indicating readiness for military service, score at least 430 in English and 460 in math on the SAT college entrance exam or excel in college courses while in high school, among other choices.

“There are multiple options for students, some very traditional, as well as measures that haven’t been tested before, such as work-based learning and industry-recognized credentials like a nursing or automotive certificate,” Russel said.

Students also must develop an individual career and academic plan, which Russel calls “a tool to help students and families investigate what could be the direction the student wants to take.”

“Districts are moving toward what is going to be the best way for each student to look into opportunities to experience and engage,” she said.

There’s no inkling yet of how the state’s new graduation requirements will affect graduation rates, though education officials hope they have a positive effect.

“We’re not going to see the full impact until we start graduating students in the class of 2021,” Russel said.

 

Teacher support is key
Students have ideas about how to realize further improvements.

Quentin Price, valedictorian at Atlas Preparatory School, a charter middle and high school in Harrison School District 2, said teachers “play a huge role” in graduation rates.

“I have friends who struggled in middle school and really changed in high school because a teacher forced them to realize they needed to do something and not become just another statistic,” Price said. “If we want to improve graduation rates, we have to change the system of those most influencing students: teachers.”

Adults reminding teens of the importance of graduation also helps, Price said.

“It’s very impactful,” he said. “It’s like a pay-it-forward chain – a great teacher role model influences a student who, once understanding the benefits of hard work and graduating, can share that with friends and create a positive loop.”

Jilian Lahey, valedictorian at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs School District 11, said she was motivated by support at home and at school.

“Some people don’t have that connection,” she said, “from moving around, switching schools, broken families, other problems.”

Having enough school counselors to take a genuine interest in each student would help, Lahey said.

“It’s cool how me and my counselor have a friendship, and she looks out for me and has pushed me to my full potential.”


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The death of a Colorado Springs Marine profiled in Sunday’s Gazette has prompted a measure before Congress that mandates an outside investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs handling of suicidal patients.

Aurora Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman said his measure would require the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine review veterans’ deaths within the last five years related to drug overdoses or suicide.

“I’m still haunted by the situation with Noah Harter,” Coffman told The Gazette on Tuesday.

Harter, 25, died in 2015 after visiting VA’s Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs for depression and “suicidal ideation.” Although VA identified Harter as a high risk suicidal patient, he was sent home after the visit with a powerful anti-depressant and no scheduled follow-up appointments.

VA blamed the fatal lack of follow-up on a scheduling software glitch.

Coffman said the VA is over-reliant on drugs to treat mental illness and lax in its follow-up, which he said contributed to Harter’s death.

“I think there are a lot more tragedies like Noah Harter out there,” he said.

The congressman’s bill is off to a strong start, with bi-partisan support in the House and backing from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in the upper chamber.

In its most recent statistics, VA says 20 veterans die by suicide every day, including six who had received VA services.

A Marine veteran, Coffman is all too familiar with the invisible wounds of war. After serving in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the congressman said he came home to feelings he’d never experienced before.

“It was the emptiest feeling I have ever felt in my entire life,” he said.

Coffman has led an effort this year to reform VA, backing bills that increased veteran access to private care, encouraged stronger discipline in the agency’s ranks and covered mental health care for all combat veterans regardless of their discharge status.

He’s spent more than a year studying Noah Harter’s death.

Harter, a graduate of Rampart High School, left the Marines in 2011. He was attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and looking forward to a career in business.

But the nearly 300 combat missions he had served in Iraq and Afghanistan left him battling post-traumatic stress, depression and insomnia.

Coffman said Harter’s courage in admitting his struggle and seeking VA care is notable.

“He had to be in a bad situation to go in there and ask for help,” he said.

The VA completed, but will not release an internal review of Harter’s death. Coffman, through the House VA, ordered a congressional investigation, but the agency hasn’t been cooperative, he said.

VA is pushing against Coffman’s measure to get an outside probe of suicides and overdose deaths.

“The VA is saying it is unnecessary,” Coffman said.

Representatives of the agency told Coffman they have conducted exhaustive suicide studies already and the external probe would just pile more paperwork on the problem. Coffman remains suspicious.

“If they are aware of it why haven’t they changed their practices?” he asked.



Joey BunchJoey BunchMay 31, 20174min760

Leave it to bees and butterflies to become a political thing at the Colorado Capitol. Last month, lawmakers proclaimed Interstate 76 across northeast Colorado a route that promotes pollinators.

Now Gov, John Hickenlooper has declared June in Colorado Pollinator’s Month, the first time flying insects have received such a statewide designation. (Apparently no one is that fond of the puppy-sized grasshoppers of Routt County.)

“This month we celebrate and honor the small but mighty bee, ” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “Bees, and other pollinators, are crucial for our ecosystem and the starting point of the food chain that serves countless species, including humans! The out-sized work of bees makes them truly fantastic creatures.”

Museums, libraries, businesses, nurseries and farmer’s markets across the state will put on educational programs and activities throughout the month to the raise the public profile of bees and butterflies,

Activities can be found by clicking here.

The Colorado Pollinators Highway — I-76 from Arvada to Nebraska — passed by the legislature last month calls on the Department of Transportation to accept gifts, grants or donations to put up signs and work with local governments to manage vegetation to help out honey bees and butterflies.

The People and Pollinators Action Network, the citizens group raising the insects’ political profile, said the state’s agriculture and flowering plants owe a debt to the bees and butterflies that distribute the pollen that makes it all possible.

The month also raises awareness that the pollinating species have been in decline.

“Colorado Pollinator Month is an opportunity to celebrate the animals that pollinate over 150 crops in the US and that are critical to overall ecosystem health by fertilizing a vast abundance of plants,” People and Pollinators Action Network said. “Raising the level of awareness in Colorado is critical in the fight to create, conserve and restore habitat.”

The organization says Colorado is host to more than 950 native species of bees, butterflies and other pollen-hauling bugs.

Honeybees, nationwide, are credited with adding more than $15 billion in free labor to agricultural each year, according to the organization.

“Among these stressors is habitat loss and fragmentation and a lack of availability of forage,” Beth Conrey of People and Pollinators Action Network and past president of the Colorado State Beekeepers Association, said in a statement.

“A diverse and thriving pollinator population supports agriculture and a diverse ecosystem and there are simple tools we can engage to expand pollinator habitat in Colorado.”

In a joint statement Jessica Goldstrohm and Amanda Accamando, co-Chairs of the education and outreach workgroup of the Colorado Pollinator Network, said, “We have a vision of increasing statewide awareness for pollinators during the month of June when pollinators can be readily seen and observed visiting flowers throughout the state.

“In partnership with various organizations, businesses, and local and federal agencies we are planning educational events across the state with a mission to forge connections between Coloradans and the diverse cast of pollinators that make our state colorful. We hope that increased awareness and understanding of pollinators will inspire Coloradans to make positive changes in their own yards and communities to support pollinator health and habitats.”



The Denver PostMay 31, 20172min390

What a grim story to read the day after Memorial Day: The problem of stolen opioid and other drugs remains a serious and growing one at our nation’s hospitals and clinics for military veterans.

Coloradans well know that such thefts, also called drug diversions, can lead to frightening situations in which patients face infections from those stealing the drugs. Drug diversions have troubled Colorado private hospitals in recent years. In addition to infection risks, patients recovering from surgery and otherwise dealing with extreme pain are left to suffer as a result of a thief’s search for a fix.

Veterans hospitals are seeing the problem in much greater numbers. The Associated Press has found that the rate of stolen drugs from Veterans Affairs hospitals is twice what occurs in private facilities. Federal officials say the VA’s large stockpiles of drugs and high volume of patients at its facilities contribute to the problem. As Jeffrey Hughes, the acting VA assistant inspector general for investigations, told The AP, “Veterans may be denied necessary medications or their proper dosage and medical records may contain false information to hide the diversion, further putting veterans’ health at risk.”

Read more at The Denver Post.



Nearly 50 years ago, leaders from several Northern Colorado communities recognized that this area was on steady track toward growth.

At that time, the newly built Interstate 25 north of Denver had no trouble bearing all of the north Front Range traffic on its four lanes of concrete. Community edges were easy to see because of the large number of farms that separated them.

Leaders from Loveland, Longmont, Estes Park, Greeley, Fort Collins and Boulder recognized that as new residents moved to their communities, the need for year-round, uninterrupted water would become ever greater. In response, they formed the Municipal Subdistrict in the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District — now known simply as Northern Water — to acquire water rights on the Western Slope.

Read more at The Loveland Reporter-Herald.



Policy makers, government officials and journalists from Kansas are going out of their way to point at the state’s fiscal crisis as an example of what awaits the rest of the country if President Trump’s proposed budget is adopted by Congress.

While that’s unlikely — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called Trump’s budget “dead on arrival” when it was released as an outline earlier this month — it’s worth contemplating why the Trump administration would promote a tax and spending plan similar to the one that has left Kansas in a shambles.

What they have in common is Arthur Laffer, the guru of “supply-side economics” since the Reagan era and one of the architects of a tax plan Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback started promoting in 2012 and persuaded the legislature to enact in 2013.

Read more at The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.



Noah Harter was so exceptional that he survived 300 combat missions as a Marine. Department of Veterans Affairs employees, by contrast, are notoriously substandard. Exhibiting typical VA underachievement, they declined to give Harter the minimal, fundamental care extended to suicidal patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The heart-wrenching details of Harter’s death are spelled out in an expose Sunday by Gazette reporters Stephanie Earls and Tom Roeder, who interviewed relatives and colleagues of the Colorado Springs resident.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, responding to the story, plans to introduce a measure requiring the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine review veterans’ deaths, related to drug overdoses or suicides, within the past five years. Coffman, R-Aurora, says Harter’s death haunts him.

The Harter tragedy is the latest in a yearslong series of VA horror stories involving institutional corruption, incompetence, fiscal irresponsibility and apathy toward patients.

Read more at The Colorado Springs Gazette.



The Denver PostMay 30, 20171min410

It’s a harsh reality — the U.S. cannot afford to cover the current number of Medicaid recipients with the current level of benefits.

Just how expensive is Medicaid? Republicans in the U.S. House were able to find $834 billion in savings over 10 years by drastically cutting the federal insurance coverage for the poor in their now notoriously bad American Health Care Act.

President Donald Trump’s budget suggests paring down the program by (possibly another) $610 billion over 10 years. In all, the AHCA and Trump’s budget could cut around half of federal Medicaid spending, more than $1.4 trillion over 10 years, although the White House has said some of the president’s cuts overlap with the AHCA cuts.

Read more at The Denver Post.



Steamboat TodayMay 30, 20171min350

We were pleased this week with the news that Colorado U.S. Sen. Corey Gardner and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton had reached out to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asking him not to make any changes in the status of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in far Southwestern Colorado. However, we’re also skeptical.

Canyons of the Ancients, in some ways a more remote, less-traveled adjunct to nearby Hovenweap National Monument, represents a treasure trove of archaeological sites, with startling numbers of sandstone ruins from an era when the Pueblo people were building cylindrical dwellings. Tipton accurately pointed out in the news release announcing the letter, that Canyons of the Ancients, with an estimated 6,355 cultural sites, is what Congress intended when it approved the Antiquities Act.

Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama have used the act to create new national monuments.

Read more at Steamboat Today.



How did it come to pass that Mesa County doesn’t have a war memorial on the grounds of the courthouse?

It’s a curious departure from the patriotic spirit that pervades this valley. How many towns in Colorado can boast of having both a Veterans Affairs hospital and a Veterans Memorial Cemetery? Short of military towns, few places are sown with more opportunity to cultivate an appreciation for military service than Grand Junction; yet we lack a monument to hometown heroes so ubiquitous in county seats across the country.

Lack of a courthouse war memorial hasn’t stopped this community from properly honoring the memory of the men and women who served the cause of freedom. To suggest otherwise would be an insult to members of local groups who decorate graves and organize ceremonies to remind us that freedom isn’t free.

Read more at The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.