Colorado Youth for a Change aims to improve state’s high school dropout rate one student at a time

During his freshman year of high school, Govan Alvarado tried out for the soccer and basketball teams.

He didn’t make the rosters. Not because he was bad at the sports, though. His grades were terrible, and coaches told him he wasn’t eligible.

Alvarado asked a teacher at Alameda International Jr./Sr. High School in Lakewood for help, and she directed him to Colorado Youth for a Change, a nonprofit organization that keeps students from dropping out of school. Through the program, Alvarado was paired with a mentor, Lily Rodriguez, and the two meet weekly to go over his grades, review homework and talk about what it will take to succeed.

This year, in 10th grade, Alvarado’s report card shows mostly As and Bs with a couple of Cs. He played midfielder on the school’s soccer team and the basketball coach told him he’s welcome to join the team.

“I’m thankful because as a freshman I had no help. It was a struggle,” Alvarado said. “Ever since then, my grades are getting better and my parents are proud of me. I tell my parents about Miss Lilly. She really helped me with my grades.”

Colorado Youth for a Change formed in 2005 to address the state’s high dropout rate when an average of 18,000 students annually would quit school before graduation, said Mary Zanotti, the organization’s executive director. The program uses volunteers to help students one-on-one at all grade levels to keep them engaged and enrolled in school.

Volunteers help children in first through third grades with reading, because children who struggle with reading comprehension fall behind at a young age. They tutor fourth through eighth graders in math, so they have a strong foundation when it’s time to tackle algebra. And then the volunteers and mentors work with high school students to overcome a variety of obstacles that prevent students from finishing, Zanotti said.

Today, Colorado Youth for a Change operates in 34 school districts along the Front Range, on the Western Slope and in northern Colorado, Zanotti said. Last year, 9,000 students dropped out of Colorado high schools, she said.

“I tell people that 9,000 is the Red Rocks capacity,” Zanotti said to put the issue in perspective.

The organization has seen demand for its services increase during the pandemic as students fell behind when schools turned to remote classrooms. They are “all over the place in their learning,” she said.

Colorado Youth for a Change

Address: 2490 W. 26th Ave., #110A, Denver, CO 80211

In operation since: 2005

Number of employees: 37

Annual budget: $3.6 million

Percentage that goes directly to client services: 88%

Number of clients served in 2020: 5,820

To help meet demand, Colorado Youth for a Change uses AmeriCorps volunteers to work as tutors and mentors for students. The goal is to have 400 working within the organization this academic year.

“The power and influence one adult has in the lives of these kids is what it comes down to,” said Julia Hughes, senior director of development and communication at Colorado Youth for a Change.

Alvarado blamed his academic struggles on the pandemic. He started studying from home in the spring semester of his eighth-grade year. The transition to high school with its more rigorous academics was tough, especially when he again started with remote learning. Working with Rodriguez has made a world of difference.

Their weekly meetings are motivating him and keeping him on track. During one of their meetings in October, Alvarado was pondering whether or not to participate in a field trip to Dinosaur Ridge. It was going to cost $10, plus lunch, and he wasn’t sure if he had enough money.

Rodriguez encouraged him to go. She’s going to be a chaperone on the field trip and promised that if he would go, she would bring his lunch.

“I’m really proud of him,” she said. “And I’m proud I’m making a difference in his life.”