One out of every three students at Montezuma-Cortez High School did not graduate on time last year, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
Sixty-five percent of the Class of 2012 - those who enrolled in August 2008 - finished in four years.
The CDE report, released late last month, shows an alarming 52 percent graduation rate for Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1, but that number includes Southwest Open School's rate of 14 percent.
Director Jennifer Carter would like to boost graduation rates but said the low number shouldn't be viewed negatively because churning out students within four years is not the charter's primary goal.
"As an alternative education campus, we will take students up to age 21. Most of the students who join Colorado's 76 alternative schools are already behind in credits," she said, adding that SWOS' "completion rate," which measures finishing over 5-7 years, was 38 percent. The others drop out, return to M-CHS or transfer to other districts.
Superintendent Alex Carter noted the distinction between M-CHS and SWOS, but said he wasn't trying to make excuses. SWOS draws a few students from Mancos, Dolores and Dove Creek, but the majority are from the Cortez school system. If it weren't for SWOS, most would be at M-CHS.
"I'm not implying (the rate) is good enough, because it isn't. These are our students. We need to take ownership of them," he said.
Carter said subpar graduation rates in Re-1 are not solely a high school problem, but a district-wide one. If a student arrives to M-CHS reading at a sixth grade level, for example, there is little high school English teachers can do. They are playing catch-up from the outset.
"Interventions at the K-8 years are needed," he said. "High school is a big step up. Some students arrive not equipped, and are shocked at the level expected of them. They don't feel prepared."
Catching the stragglers early on is imperative, Carter added. Freshmen who finish their first year with less than six credits are 20 times more likely to drop out, he said.
M-CHS principal Jason Wayman, and Lori Haukeness, chief academic officer for Re-1, said improving graduation rates is a long-term process; there is no immediate fix. But the district has introduced several policies in the last few years aimed at keeping students on track.
A credit recovery program launched last year helped 53 students make-up one or two credits during the summer. The idea is to give students who failed a class by 20 or fewer points a second chance.
M-CHS has "grade level teams" made of counselors, administrators and teachers that track individual student progress and contact parents if the student falls behind.
In a similar but more intensive idea developed by the University of Minnesota, called Check and Connect, a trained mentor forms relationships with about 25 struggling students and monitor their attendance and grades.
If a student is enrolled in two elective classes and is failing a core class needed for graduation, M-CHS offers the option of dropping one elective and replacing it with a "targeted study hall."
Under a policy called "zeros not allowed" - or ZAPS - students can use lunch periods to submit assignments and take tests they missed the first time around.
"Scores of zero are not an accurate reflection of a student's intelligence. It might indicate their laziness or forgetfulness, but not intelligence," Alex Carter said.
Four times a week, freshman and sophomores take Career Pathways, a workforce readiness curriculum that doubles as a homeroom. It's another layer of oversight.
Finally, for two years M-CHS has offered a freshman "initiation" before the school year begins. Incoming freshmen can learn about the school layout, scheduling and study skills, and build relationships with staff, so they are less overwhelmed when classes begin.
Haukeness said involvement in school clubs and extra-curricular activities helps students structure their time more wisely, which in turn creates better study habits and completion of classes.
Wayman cited several systemic reasons for the chronically low on-time graduation rate, including absenteeism, disengaged parents, and a lack of motivation or "buy-in" from students.
"We need to do a better job of helping students own their education by giving them choices," he said.
Following a consistent state (and national) trend, female students in Re-1 are doing a better job finishing high school in four years than their male classmates.
Native American students are the ethnic subgroup that continues to struggle most acutely. Between M-CHS and SWOS, only 14 of 48 Native American students that began in 2008 completed high school in four years.
Statewide, on-time graduation ticked upward last year by 1.5 percentage points, to 75.4 percent. Two thirds of school districts achieved a rate equal or above the state's benchmark target of 80 percent.
When students earning GED certificates are added to the equation, the rate rises to 78.2 percent.
Montezuma County's two other high schools finished well above the state average. Dolores graduated 36 of 43 students (84 percent) in four years, and Mancos issued diplomas to 21 of 23 students (91 percent).
Durango 9R, the largest school district in Southwest Colorado, was one point above the state average at 76.6 percent.
For the sixth consecutive year, the state dropout rate improved, down to 2.9 percent. Schools reported 488 fewer dropouts (among grades 7-12) than 2010-2011, and 5,775 fewer than 2005-06, when the dropout rate was 4.5 percent.