COVID-19 pushes Santa Clara County dropout rate up
Chris Funk, superintendent for East Side Union High School District, says more support is needed for students who continue distance learning. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Distance learning has led to an increase in students dropping out of high school in Santa Clara County.

    The 2021 Silicon Valley Index, released by nonprofit Joint Venture Silicon Valley’s Institute for Regional Studies, showed this was especially true for homeless youth, English-language learners, Hispanic and low-income students.

    Rachel Massaro, vice president and director of research at Joint Venture Silicon Valley, said students have struggled with distance learning, especially those facing inequities.

    “The fact that the pandemic has increased dropout rates in Silicon Valley is highly troubling,” Massaro said. “Not just because we don’t ever want any students to drop out of high school, but also because of the disparities in how students were able to weather this crisis.”

    Filipino students saw the highest increase in dropout rates among high school students in Santa Clara County schools. In 2019-20, an additional 160 Filipino students left school without a degree compared with the previous school year, Massaro said. That increase, from 37 to 197 dropouts out of the nearly 1,000 Filipino high school students in the county, represented a jump in their dropout rate to nearly 20% from about 4%.

    Over the 2019-20 school year, 2,946 of the 21,398 high school students in a Santa Clara County cohort dropped out, about a 14% dropout rate. That’s up from 9%, or 1,925 dropouts out of 21,276 total students the previous year. Among the racial and ethnic groups in Santa Clara County who dropped out during the 2019-20 school year,  52% were Hispanic, 20% Asian, 14% Black and 13% white.

    Language divide

    Distance learning is especially difficult for people who learned English as a second language, said Cuauhcihuatl Trinidad, vice president of program operations for ConXion to Community, a San Jose nonprofit providing education, workforce, behavioral health and social services.

    Parents who struggle with English can’t provide homework help and access to teachers is more limited. In the 2018-19 school year, 156 English learners dropped out of high school. That number rose to 1,086 English learners in the 2019-20 school year.

    “Some find it hard to concentrate,” Trinidad said. “… and will only participate if they have their parents or someone to make sure they do.”

    Corina Herrera-Loera, president of Alum Rock Union School District Board, said East Side youth face additional challenges to their education. As many have parents who are essential workers, they are charged with looking after their younger siblings and don’t have quiet places to do their schoolwork.

    “When I think of the youth in our East Side community, a lot of them are caretakers,” she said. “I can’t imagine the daily stress for a high school student who is having to … do their own work, oversee the younger children’s needs and share the internet.”

    Herrera-Loera said this kind of stress along with connectivity challenges might lead teenagers to give up on school. They might decide that keeping their siblings safe, connected and fed while their parents need to work is the priority, she said.

    Or students might feel compelled to join the workforce to make sure the family can pay their rent. Many also share a room with other family members, making it hard to concentrate.

    The dropout rate for Latino students is more than four times the rate for other students in some of the district’s schools, officials said. 

    Chris Funk, superintendent for East Side Union High School District, agreed the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted Latino students.

    To reduce dropout rates, the district decided last spring that distance learning wouldn’t negatively impact students’ grades. This semester, it changed all Fs to no pass. Students still have to make up for failed classes, but it doesn’t impact their GPAs.

    “I think that will keep more kids in the game longer,” Funk said.

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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