Edwin Flores Dominguez works on his personal computer in one of the IT labs at the Community College of Aurora. Flores-Dominguez was an Ascent Program student at Aurora West College Prepatory Academy and after completing just his second semester at CCA, he will graduate with an associates degree. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Edwin Flores Dominguez is one of those Aurora DACA kids you hear a lot about these days and one of the reasons graduation rate is a big deal.

While Edwin is part of the endless controversy over deciding whether the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival kids will eventually be deported or become citizens, the real story about the 18-year-old Aurora Public Schools student is that he’s about to get two diplomas at the same time.

Edwin is a lover of all things computer-related. By summer, he’ll have graduated from an Aurora high school and won an associate degree from a local community college – all in just five years.

DOUBLING DOWN ON DIPLOMAS: Dual-track, advanced college prep programs boost Aurora, statewide graduation rates. Sentinel illustration by Robert Sausaman

For the first time, he and other students in a special high school-college hybrid program called ASCENT were counted in annual graduation rate statistics released by the state Department of Education, helping a historic spike in Aurora Public Schools’ four-year graduation rate.

The percentage of APS students graduating in four years rose almost 9 percent last year to 77 percent, thanks to a 6 percent boost from a new law incorporating ASCENT students who are awarded a free year of community college after their fourth year of high school into the four-year rate.  Previously, those students were counted in the five-year graduation rate.

No district in Colorado had more to gain from the law change than APS, which has placed more students than any other district into the statewide program.

APS’ graduation rate was further boosted by the work of Edwin and his class of 2018 at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, where every senior graduated in four years.

That’s a first in APS history, according to the state statistics released last week.

Edwin now works in APS’ IT department while he finishes his last semester at the Community College of Aurora, where — if all goes to plan — he’ll be awarded an Associates of Arts degree this summer.

As part of the ASCENT program, he’ll receive his high school diploma and associate degree at the same time when he finishes classes this semester, along with about 160 other APS students enrolled last year while technically still enrolled in various APS high schools.

A story of immigrants and mortar boards

Edwin’s journey didn’t begin in Aurora.

He was born in Mexico and crossed the U.S border as a child with his parents. He’s lived in Aurora for more than a decade, protected from deportation by DACA.

Edwin Flores Dominguez makes his way to the Student Lounge, Jan. 23, to eat his lunch between classes at the Community College of Aurora Lowry Campus. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Edwin’s first language is not English – the primary language used in local classrooms. He enrolled at an elementary school and then Aurora West, a small school in northwest Aurora offering grades six through twelve.

Like many APS students, money is a big consideration for Edwin.

He said he’d like to go to college but high tuition is a barrier. To get a head start, a counselor at Aurora West encouraged him to take community college classes while enrolled in high school.  It’s popular in Aurora and alled concurrent or dual enrollment.

Heeding the advice, Edwin dual-enrolled at the Community College of Aurora and then applied for a free year of community college through the state’s ASCENT program, or Accelerating Students through Concurrent Enrollment.

State lawmakers originally created the program to help low-income or disadvantaged students graduate on time and enroll in some post-secondary education. To date, hundreds of APS students have been accepted, buoying students in a district where about 35 percent learned English as a second language and about 70 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches at school because of low incomes.

Edwin was accepted.

In ASCENT, everything, even the textbooks for the college courses, was free, he said.

This semester, he’s taking calculus, astronomy and computer networking classes at CCA, hoping to transfer credits to a local four-year university and a tech job in downtown Denver, even if that dream requires him to take out student loans.

Even so, he’ll win an associate degree and have a head start on a bachelor’s degree.

At the same time, he and other students have helped APS drastically improve its four-year graduation rate – an important marker for the quality of a school district.

A story of numbers

The state Department of Education releases graduation rate statistics each year to keep track of student achievement across the Centennial State.

APS has lingered behind other metroplex school districts but is closing the gap, according to the state statistics: In 2018, 76.5 percent of students graduated an APS high school in four years, compared to under 50 percent in 2010.

The rate increased almost 9 percent last year, thanks to a 6.4 percent boost from ASCENT students in their fifth year incorporated into the four-year rate for the first time.

As a whole, APS lags behind the statewide average rate of 80.7 percent. Leading the metro Denver area is Douglas County schools (90.8 percent), followed by Cherry Creek schools (89.5 percent), Jefferson County schools (85.3 percent) and Adams Five Star schools (84.3 percent). APS surpasses Denver Public Schools’ (70.2 percent).

Despite its relative under-performance as a whole, the APS class of 2018 saw relative equity in graduation rates between racial groups.

About 76 percent of Hispanic, black and white students graduated on time — the three largest racial groups in APS — while Asian-American students graduated near 80 percent. The Hispanic and black student graduation rate surpasses the state average.

Graduation rates are altogether higher in other districts, but so are achievement gaps between racial groups.

In the Cherry Creek School District, about 91 percent of white students graduate on time, compared to about 89 percent of black students and 82.7 percent of Hispanic students, though all groups exceed statewide averages. In neighboring Denver Public Schools, for example, about 77 percent of white students graduate in four years, compared to near 67 percent of Hispanic and black students. Jefferson County schools saw an approximate 17 percent gap between white and black students.

APS Superintendent Rico Munn said he is particularly proud of the lower gaps this year between the graduation rates of white, black and Hispanic students.

“We lifted all boats but didn’t leave anybody behind,” Munn said.

He added that the rate of improvement is relatively high. Statewide, the four-year graduation rate rose three points, from about 77 percent to 80 percent, between 2015 and 2018. In that time, APS increased its four-year rate from about 60 percent to its current 76.5 percent.

A high school diploma is important, Munn said. It likely means a higher income and more opportunities for young people living in Aurora.

He credits the success to constructive relationships between teachers and students — such as the counselor who knew Edwin at Aurora West and recommended classes and programs for him, helping him cross the finish line.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn looks over floor plans Jan. 15, 2013 at Vista PEAK. Sentinel file photo

Regardless of the progress, Munn said the district wants to keep improving, but there’s no specific graduation rate APS is trying to reach. He said the graduation rate alone doesn’t define the success or failure of a school district.

That’s especially true of the state’s accountability law.

The state Department of Education rates school districts each year by tracking graduation rates along with indicators including test scores and academic growth. In 2017, APS improved enough to earn its way off of a five-year priority improvement status imposed by the state education department, but students still largely fail to meet statewide test score averages.

So-called achievement gaps between low-income students, like many in APS, and wealthier students are common in the state. Plus, the relatively high cost of a four-year post-secondary degree often deters low-income students from getting to college.

To address the challenge, lawmakers at the Colorado Capitol created the ASCENT program in 2009, allowing some high school students like Edwin to accomplish more in their four years — and APS has benefited tremendously.

A story of big statewide success, and an even bigger need

ASCENT is a statewide program, but the state Department of Education assigns a limited number of slots based on demographic indicators including the percentage of low-income students and the size of the school district.

Last year, 160 APS students were admitted into the program, by far the highest cohort of ASCENT students in the state. (The second-highest cohort was from Denver Public Schools with 80 slots used.)

Demand for the ASCENT program is growing statewide, said state Rep. Julie McCluskie. The state limits ASCENT slots to about 500 students, with the bulk of those going to APS.

Student make their way to class at East Middle School. Sentinel file photo

This legislative session, McCluskie is sponsoring a bill that would prioritize students who have completed at least 24 credit-hours while in high school — double the baseline criteria of 12 credit-hours to be eligible.

The change would help slots go to students already on track to knock out a bevy of college credits in APS, DPS, or the central Colorado counties she represents, McCluskie said.

Before a full-blown funding increase of the program, however, she said she’d prefer to talk to stakeholders, learn about the program and possibly introduce legislation next year.

Students in the program can complete credits toward a certificate or associate degree at their local community college. In APS, the vast amount of ASCENT students attend the Community College of Aurora, according to Bobby Pace, the Dean of Academic Affairs and head of the concurrent enrollment program.

This year, about 140 of the 160 APS ASCENT students enrolled at CCA, according to Pace. Most students accepted between fall 2012 and fall 2017 also chose CCA rather than another institution, such as Metropolitan State University in Denver.

Funding for the program is limited, and students must be eligible to successfully apply by completing 12 credit hours, or an entire semester, while a dual-enrolled junior or senior in high school. Those credits are free — they can otherwise cost near $400 for a three-credit course  — but fees can apply.

By completing the half-semester while in high school, the students prove that they are college ready, said Pace, and the state’s investment won’t go to waste.

Pace also said the vast majority of ASCENT students at CCA remain there after their free first year of college is finished. Those students study anything from political science and English to construction management, nursing, and music entrepreneurship.

After their free year in ASCENT, they can stick around or transfer their credits to a four-year institution.

Until this year, however, ASCENT students were relegated to a kind of statistical limbo by the state graduation rate counting: even though those students had completed their final high school courses, they were considered to be fifth-year students.

Those students would walk with their class at high school graduation, but not physically receive their diploma until the end of their additional ASCENT year.

That’s the case for Edwin. He said he will receive both his diploma and his degree when he finishes his ASCENT year this spring.

The counting drove down the graduation rate for some districts — especially APS.

To remedy the problem, state Rep. Mike Weissman. D-Aurora, introduced legislation last year to include ASCENT students in the four-year graduation rate count.

“APS, which uses a lot of ASCENT, was penalized,” he said of the problem. “And it struck me as unfair.”

Weissman’s bill passed unanimously, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper signed it. The change went into effect this year, accounting for the 6.4 percent boost in the four-year graduation rate in APS. Pace said both Weissman and Munn should be commended for throwing support and limited resources behind the popular program.

However, limited spots mean limited opportunity. Just 147 of the approximately 37,000 APS students are enrolled in ASCENT this year.

Munn said the district has lobbied for more ASCENT slots from the state for years, and it took some time to include those students into the four-year rate.

Even though they are now included, “those students were already a success,” Munn said.

A story of celebration

The graduation rate spike didn’t go unnoticed in APS.

Last Wednesday, students at Aurora West were corralled into a mysterious assembly for a special announcement, joined by Weissman, Munn, several school board members and a former student body president.

Balloons erupted from either side of the stage when it was announced that every single member of Aurora West graduated on time, including Edwin and his colleagues in ASCENT.

Staff served cake, and students hi-fived.

Board members Debbie Gerkin and Cathy Wildman lauded the achievement as a benchmark for APS.

Roman Estupinan Quezada, a senior at Aurora West, spoke at the assembly. He applied for a slot in ASCENT and hopes to study electrical engineering at Metro State University in his free year if he is accepted.

Dozens of West students have applied for an ASCENT slot, said Principal Taya Tselolikhina. Even so, Quezada said he’s optimistic he can study STEM and build a solid foundation for a career. If he’s accepted, he’ll walk at high school graduation and begin his ASCENT year next fall.

Asked whether the spiking graduation rate was a fluke, Quezada said no way.

“I honestly think that we can do it,” he said.