COCHISE COUNTY — School leaders across Cochise County reflect on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the graduation rates of their districts.

Superintendents from the Benson and Douglas unified school districts said their graduation rates were not affected by the pandemic.

Benson Unified School District Superintendent Micah Mortensen said the district graduation rate, ranging between 95% and 98%, was stable throughout the pandemic.

“We were able to keep things going, keep as much support as we could,” said Mortensen. “There’s only so much that you can control ... This year, though, because it was all year long with the school year, different modalities that people chose to learn this year, ‘cause some students were at school, some students were at home, we might have a little more impact this particular year.”

Douglas Unified School District Superintendent Ana Samaniego said their graduation rate, averaging 89.88%, was unaffected by the pandemic.

“The graduation rate was similar to previous years and it was within plus, minus 3%,” said Samaniego. “We don’t think that it was drastically affected because Douglas High School, and DUSD, made the choice to continue with our academic program despite the school closures.”

Samaniego said that under the Arizona State Board of Education rule R7-2-302.11, school districts had the option to end the 2019-20 academic year at the end of the third quarter.

Samaniego said doing that would have negatively affected students near graduation.

“Had we closed and not continued with school as of March the 6th, we would’ve had about 30-40 students not being able to graduate,” said Samaniego. ”We felt that we would be affecting those students that were near graduation and that would’ve needed that last quarter of school.

“So we continued operating, we continued taking grades, and allowing that extra nine weeks for any student who needed the extra time to catch up and hopefully get their diploma.”

Sierra Vista and Bisbee school leaders said the graduation rate was affected by the pandemic.

Sierra Vista Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Eric Holmes said the graduation rate is 91.4% for the 2019-20 academic year.

He said the graduation rate was affected by the pandemic, but noted the degree of the effect for the 2020-21 graduation rate is still to be determined.

“It’s changed the entire world of education, but I believe we have made our way through it,” said Holmes. “Every district has seen the effects of COVID-19 this year on a number of different processes. It has had an effect on students, it’s had an effect on our parents, our staff (and) the way we do things.”

Bisbee High School Principal Darin Giltner said his school’s graduation declined by 8% in comparison to the previous school year.

“In 2018 we were at 89%, 2019 we were at 93%, and last year (2020) we were at 85%,” said Giltner. “A little up and down, but we always try to shoot for a 90% graduation rate as far as a goal. Obviously, the size of our classes can impact that tremendously.”

To address the graduation rates, each district has implemented monitoring systems for “at risk” students and remediation programs for students to improve their grades.

Mortensen said Benson integrates peer-tutoring, before and after-school tutoring and a remediation program called “Conference Advisory Reteach” or “CAR” classes to help struggling students.

“We have intersessions that run during our breaks, and we also have a CAR class, which is like, kind of a ‘catch-up’ period for students that are struggling and some enrichment for students who are doing well,” said Mortensen. “We have meetings with parents ... We’re proud to say that we have grade-level meetings with our teachers talking about students, not just talking about content and things like that, but specifically about students.”

Samaniego said Douglas High School has two credit-recovery programs, one that’s built-in to students’ schedules and one that is outside students’ schedules.

“We have a program called DPASS,” said Samaniego. “DPASS is a credit recovery system and program where students, who may be students (that are) struggling or who fall behind, by the time they are juniors, they have an opportunity to take some of those courses.”

Holmes said the district has created a dual remediation and enrichment program called the “Summer Academy,” to help struggling students improve their grades and to provide instruction in arts, sports and technology.

“We’re looking at curriculum, we’re looking at social-emotional well-being, we’re looking at academic assistance, all of those things that we incorporate into that whole process,” said Holmes.

He said the district’s governing board has recently approved a new math curriculum for the 2021-22 school year, and discussions around establishing a new English Language Arts program are in progress for next year.

Giltner said Bisbee High School has a district-wide program called “Advancing Individual Determination” or AVID, that’s designed to prepare students for post-secondary education with study skills and resources.

“Really the focus within AVID is what we would call ‘WICKER activities,’ writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization and reading,” said Giltner. “It’s college awareness, exposure and experience in regards to what’s available post-secondary.

“This is our opportunity as educators to really demonstrate what our profession is about, day-in and day-out, and this is a really pivotal time.”