Community groups help boost Hays CISD graduation rates

The graduation rate in Hays CISD schools is increasing despite half of its students reportedly being at-risk for dropping out.

Social justice issues and politics are shaping the way middle and high school students are choosing to learn about themselves and their communities, which educators say is increasing their interest in their futures.

According to Hays CISD data, graduation rates have increased in the last six years from 88 percent to 93 percent. However, 50 percent of students district-wide are considered at risk for dropping out according to data from the Texas Tribune. This increase can be attributed to an influx of new principals, a new superintendent and the work of a partnership between Communities in Schools of Central Texas (CIS) and the Hays Caldwell Women’s Center.

The partnership, created in 2000, is responsible for teaching students about healthy relationships, domestic violence and consent.

Prevention educators have noticed a difference in recent years in the way students perceive themselves, their civic duties and communities.

CIS is an organization hired by school districts to educate and counsel student populations at risk for dropping out. The partnership between CIS and HCWC flourishes as abusive relationships and unhealthy living situations often contribute to the downfall of a student’s educational career.

Kiara Nicholson, primary prevention coordinator at HCWC, meets with students at Lehman High twice a week and Chapa Middle School on other days. While on campus, Nicholson works with select students through learning activities designed to teach them about healthy relationships and how to determine and prevent violence in their own lives.

“We have noticed, actually, that this year and in recent years students have started asking us more about social justice issues in addition to what we already teach,” Nicholson said. “We don’t go to the students with that message, but they’re wanting to know more about race and gender now than before.”

Select students leave their classes for an hour, once a week to participate. Since January, 4,477 students have participated in these sessions through schools in Hays and Caldwell counties. Students are asked what they think about themselves, what their friendships and relationships look like and what they expect from their communities.

“People don’t usually ask students those things,” said Melissa Rodriguez, director of community partnerships at HCWC. “We hear from parents that they often put off having these discussions with their kids thinking that they’re too young to worry about relationships, but they are. It’s important these kids learn now what’s hurtful and abusive and what to do about it.”

HCWC reports receiving positive feedback from students, despite sometimes hearing concern from the county population.

“Sometimes we get questions with people concerned about what we’re telling kids, and sometimes those people say negative things on Facebook,” Rodriquez said. “But, we’re really focused on discussions about health. The kids do ask us about social issues though.”

Since entering the school district, the partnership has noticed a decrease in the district’s dropout rate.

Kayla King, Program Manager at CIS, said she has noticed students attending school despite socioeconomic barriers in an effort to meet with CIS educators and see their HCWC representatives.

“We lack so much of the resources that other communities have in public transportation and in mental health,” King said. “Lehman and Hays take the brunt of that. We focus a lot on mental health and barriers to getting to school. They may skip school other days but they come for their groups.”

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