by Kelli Weldon, Community Impact

October 29, 2014

Central Texas graduation rates for low-income students have risen in the past decade and now lead those of major Texas cities such as Houston and Dallas, according to data Austin-based nonprofit E3 Alliance presented Oct. 29 at its E3 3D spotlight event at Eastside Memorial High School.

Students face many barriers that can affect how successful they are in the classroom, E3 Director of Research Shawn Thomas said.
E3’s data included a demographic breakdown showing that achievement gaps in Central Texas high school graduation rates have been getting smaller. Low-income Hispanic and African-American males have the lowest graduation rates among Central Texas students, while non-low-income African-American female students and non-low-income Asian male students had the highest graduation rates. Thomas highlighted some of the factors that affect whether or not students go on to graduate and talked with a panel of EMHS students.
Isaac Reyes, a junior, said he puts in six-hour shifts at a grocery store after school. Some AISD students work to help support their families, and Reyes said it can be challenging to manage time and make sure homework is completed.
“It’s harder, but we manage. … To have a future, you have to survive,” he said.
In Austin ISD, graduation rates for the 2012–13 school year reached 84.1 percent, an all-time high, Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz said.
“We have all student groups at 80 percent or better, which is a first for Austin ISD,” he said. “…For us in Austin it’s about making sure that all students stay in school every year, they stay on grade level and then they graduate from high school.”
Students in Central Texas who did not graduate in four years had higher numbers of absences than those who graduated on time, according to E3 data. Nearly half of students who missed 20 or more days of school while in the ninth grade did not graduate in four years, according to E3.
Bryan Miller, principal of Eastside Memorial High School, said EMHS has been working to change the culture of the school to ensure student success, in part by increasing its focus on making sure students are in the classroom as part of E3’s Missing School Matters campaign, he said.
“When I first came to Eastside [in the 2011–12 school year] we were at about an 85 percent average attendance rate, and last year we were nearly at 92, and this year we are hovering a little over 93 [percent],” he said.
Acute illness is of the main reasons students miss school, according to E3 data. E3 Alliance also kicked off a flu immunization campaign Oct. 29. The nonprofit will be providing free flu vaccine at 55 schools in Central Texas at no cost to districts or families. In Austin ISD, Blackshear, Brooke, Govalle, Jordan, Metz, Norman, Oak Springs, Overton, Pecan Springs, Sanchez, Sims, and Zavala elementary schools will be participating.
EMHS senior Jaquay Steen pointed out that some students see high school as a pathway to college, and those who plan to work after high school rather than going to college don’t feel that school benefits them.
Changes are coming to schools statewide as part of the rollout of House Bill 5. Students have to select “endorsements,” or areas of concentration, upon entering ninth grade.
“In Austin we have made it a little bit more challenging,” Cruz said, noting the district’s board of trustees approved making the Distinguished Level of Achievement graduation path the one students will set out on when they enter high school. Parents can choose to opt out of that plan.
“We didn’t have to do it but we felt it was the best thing to do, and our board unanimously supported the Distinguished Level of Achievement plan as the prescribed plans for all of our students,” he said.

ESMHS Students
From left: Eastside Memorial High School students Jaquay Steen, Isaac Reyes and Haley Delrio answered questions Oct. 29 as part of a student panel at an E3 Alliance event about graduation rates.