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Everyone wants to find the formula for keeping minority students in school, Grace Huerta says, and while she doesn't have the recipe, she can identify many of the ingredients.
As a Utah State University education professor, she knows the research. As a Latina from a "disadvantaged" background, Huerta knows something more: how she got where she is.
A new Manhattan Institute study shows Utah's graduation rate is 14th highest in the nation at 77 percent, but the rate for Latinas is second lowest, at 52 percent. Statistical aberrations prevented the study from citing statistics for Latino boys, though its authors believe the gap is even wider.
The education policy group's percentages are lower than those cited by the Utah State Office of Education, but both agree on one point: Graduation rates for minority students are far lower than for their white peers, and the problem must be addressed.
Huerta says it took a combination of circumstances to propel her toward college, and it almost didn't happen.
"I'm from East L.A., the first person in my family to attend college," she said. "I didn't know what opportunities were out there. Like most kids, I was willing to get out of work if I could."
Luckily, people cared enough about her to nudge her off the trail that led away from school.
At Alhambra High School, Latino teachers and administrators provided role models for Huerta. An English teacher formed a valued personal connection, encouraging Huerta to try an Advanced Placement class that became Huerta's gateway to college.
The A.P. teacher exposed Huerta to literature that resonated with her life experiences, teaching the works of Latino and black writers long before such practices became common.
"That was huge," Huerta said.
Even more critical was the tough love Huerta received from her parents. Her father, a produce worker, squired his daughter through the University of Southern California campus when she was a girl, collecting cans for spare change as they walked. Huerta's mother, who never had the chance to attend high school, was relentless in ensuring that her daughter didn't miss opportunities.
"I tell my students I have this little dip in the small of my back," she laughs. "It's from my mother's knee - pushing me."
University of Utah education professor Enrique Aleman says such encouragement is crucial to minority students' success. But without good policy-making at the state level, it all can be for naught, he said. Although he sees the federal No Child Left Behind act as imperfect and underfunded, he believes Utah's resistance to it condones school system failures.
"In the last debate over NCLB, we heard, 'We are doing fine. We don't need the federal government telling us what to do.' " Aleman said. "It's true that are a lot of faults with NCLB, but it's still making this state look hard at what it is not doing."
Aleman is angry Utah teachers are expected to succeed with diverse groups of students and mounting federal requirements despite having some of the nation's largest class sizes and lowest teacher salaries.
"Teachers are being scapegoated as the only problem," Aleman said. "There has to be accountability at the district and state level, and resources put into helping people succeed."
Ensuring graduation has to start early, said Matthew Taylor, of the Center for the School of the Future at USU. "If you want to solve problems in the secondary level, the solution is best addressed when the kids are in elementary school," Taylor said. Making sure kids are reading at grade level when they are 8 is crucial. "Then, even if they do get behind afterward, they have the mechanics to catch up."
Aleman places the moment of intervention even earlier, and believes the 2006 Legislature erred in failing to pass a proposal for optional full-day kindergarten in schools with high populations of at-risk students.
"We are still stuck in the mode of not wanting to have kids in school all day, when research shows it will help," he said.
Patti Harrington, state superintendent of public instruction, said Utah's resistance to NCLB is not meant to mask troublesome issues. The act focuses too much on testing and teacher qualifications, and too little on helping students perform better.
"We're spending too much time on the [act]," she said. "It has diverted time we could otherwise spend on instruction."
Harrington's office pushed hard this year for early interventions such as all-day kindergarten, she said.
"Any time a child doesn't graduate it's of great concern," Harrington said. "The causes are systemic in that child's background - whether they mastered reading in early years and math in middle elementary years."
Harrington said the greatest number of dropouts leave school during or after ninth grade.
"It's our year of greatest worry, and should be our year of highly customized instruction. But all of that takes money."
David Rettie, Westlake Junior High School principal, said the problem is attacked from many angles at his school. For nearly half the students at his West Valley City school, English is a second language, and a majority come from economically disadvantaged homes. Those factors present challenges, but they also make Westlake eligible for federal assistance, and the money helps a lot.
"We are able to reduce class sizes to 15, and have two or more aides in reading classrooms - the same with math and English language classes," Rettie said. The school also has Camp Westlake, an optional after-school and summer program that provides study help, cultural understanding and fun.
During the first after-school hour of Camp Westlake, students receive assistance with homework. The second hour features cooking, crafts and cultural activities such as ethnic dancing. Rettie said more than 300 students attend.
Westlake also encourages teachers to make personal connections with students, and has programs for introducing students to college and career possibilities and preparing them for rigorous classes by teaching study and note-taking skills.
"We want to provide that hook that keeps students involved in school," Rettie said. He has taught at schools that have many students who could benefit from such programs, but not enough of them to qualify for the extra funds. The money makes all the difference, he said. Without it, teachers are too overburdened to cope with the needs of disadvantaged students.
Huerta knows what he means. She observes student teachers in Cache Valley schools. Sometimes, the impulse to reach out to struggling minority students is smothered by practical necessities, she said.
In one classroom, Huerta watched a Latina student sitting in the back row, head down. The classroom bulged with students who were hopelessly far ahead of the newcomer. Huerta was saddened, but not surprised, by the words the harried senior teacher spoke to the student teacher under Huerta's observation:
"Maria doesn't come to school much. She's not really interested, so why bother?"