AURORA — As the oldest sibling at home, Nadine Molina looks after her younger brothers and sisters each morning. It’s a responsibility that put the Hinkley High School senior’s diploma at risk.

For the last three years, Molina missed most of her morning classes. Instead of solving equations in algebra class, she was driving her five younger siblings to school and helping her father with his construction business.

“I wouldn’t get to school until after lunch,” said Molina, who fell so far behind that she faced a possible a fifth year of high school. “I felt horrible that I could become a super senior.”

That changed this spring with the opening of Hinkley High’s night school, which puts a new wrinkle on credit recovery efforts by starting the day when most students are headed home, recognizing that work and family demands put teens like Molina at risk of being left behind.

While school officials point to early signs of progress, not all students like the online courses that make up the bulk of instruction, and research is thin on whether credit recovery works.

One of 55 students who attend the program to reover missing high school credits, Molina is now on track to graduate thanks in part to a school day that starts at 2:30 p.m.

The program, which launched Jan. 19, is the first of its kind for Aurora Public Schools and is one school’s effort to boost the district’s dismal graduation rate. At Hinkley High School only six out of every 10 students graduate on time. The state’s average graduation rate is 77 percent.

While Hinkley and many of the district’s other high schools offer credit recovery programs during the day, this is the first time an Aurora high school has created a program outside the regular school day.

Credit recovery programs for high school students are prolific in many of Colorado’s school districts and across the nation. A 2011 National Center for Education Statistics report found 88 percent of school districts across the nation offered a credit recovery program. In Colorado, Denver and Jeffco public schools are among the few school districts that offer night school programs.

Hinkley’s program

Three types of students attend Hinkley’s nightly credit recovery program: Seniors who have not earned enough credits to graduate this spring, dropouts who have returned to Hinkley and juniors who have fallen behind.

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“The students who are here, they don’t have a lot of time,” said Andre Bala, the Hinkley administrator who runs the night school. “If they were to stay in the traditional classroom, they wouldn’t make it.”

One encouraging early for the night program: better attendance. On average, about 87 percent of students show up each afternoon. Only 76 percent of students show up daily to the credit recovery program during regular school hours.

The increase in attendance puts Hinkley’s night school on par with last semester’s average daily attendance across all Aurora high schools.

“They didn’t connect with school,” Bala said. “Now they’re showing up regularly.”

For the first hour of night school, students work on building relationships with their classmates and teachers, preparing college resumes or work applications and reviewing their progress in the class with instructors.

From 3:45 p.m. until 8 p.m. students work through online-based courses. There’s a break for dinner –which students must bring at 5 p.m.

The online lessons include a video lecture, course notes, quizzes and tests. Some courses also require students to write short responses or full essays. On hand to help students are four adults, including two licensed teachers.

“Students are flourishing,” Bala said, referring to the online lessons. “This could be the future of education.”

Are they actually learning?

Not all night school students are thrilled with online learning, however.

Kennon Baldwin, a senior, said he misses classroom discourse. And he believes he isn’t retaining as much information as he would in a regular classroom.

“I hate it because there is no interaction with everyone else,” he said. “To some it’s beneficial. I’m not learning as much. I forget a lot. But I’m passing. And night school is keeping me away from the temptation of ditching.”

Baldwin might not be wrong about learning less.

One of the few studies on credit recovery programs, done by the American Institutes for Research, found that students who took a computer-based credit recovery course in algebra learned slightly less than peers who covered similar material in a teacher-led course.

On average, students who took the algebra course online only covered half the material, said Jessica Heppen, a researcher from the American Institutes of Research who co-led the 2011-2012 study.

“It’s a tough row to hoe,” Heppen said.

Heppen said the Chicago students who took part in the study reported the standardized online course was difficult to understand in part because of the volume of reading and the lack of adult support to fill in knowledge gaps.

“Students who have the highest failure rates are going to be taking online classes unless schools offer some different alternative,” Heppen said, arguing for more research into online-credit recovery and more student-adaptive programs. “Online providers should be pushed to put out more flexible models that are engaging and interactive.”

Hinkley principal Matthew Willis said he believes students who earn a diploma through credit recovery are just as prepared as those who travel a traditional path.

“Everyone needs a different avenue,” he said. “To not offer multiple pathways seems unjust.”

Next school year

Hinkley is using a $50,000 grant from the district to pay for the program. School leaders, who already believe the program is working, are searching for outside grants to keep the program running into the future.

Bala said he hopes to grow the night school program and make more meaningful connections with students. His immediate plans include home visits to students who have already dropped out of Hinkley.

He also hopes Aurora’s other high schools consider a similar effort.

“Our students have needs to be met,” he said. “If you give students multiple chances to be successful, and you have high expectations and high levels of support, they’ll meet those expectations.”