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"When I became an adult, I realized what I could have been if I had taken advantage'' of school, said Edwards, who worked odd jobs after leaving Granger High School. Edwards, 26, has since earned his General Educational Development (GED) Certificate and is now studying criminal justice, aiming to become a police officer.
The future might not be as bright for many other Utahns, according to an Education Week report released Wednesday. Utah's graduation rate is still higher than the national average, but it no longer is the nation's highest, according to the report. Utah's graduation rate of 78.6 percent is now the nation's eighth highest, based on 2005 data, the most recent available. The year before, Utah topped the country with a rate of 83.8 percent.
Rates for some of the state's minority groups also plummeted from 2004 to 2005.
Only 53.6 percent of Latino seniors - representing Utah's largest minority group - graduated in 2005. That's lower than the national average and about 8 percentage points lower than the year before.
Larry Shumway, state associate superintendent, said two years worth of graduation data isn't enough to draw definitive conclusions, but Utah has room to improve. This is the third year of the report; the first year, Utah was rated 12th in the nation.
"We're pleased with our comparative success, but we're not satisfied with it," Shumway said.
He said state officials are working on ways to help close the achievement gap between some groups. The K-16 Alliance, a partnership between Utah's lower- and higher-education officials, has been working since 2006 on helping students graduate from high school and go to college. According to the report, 37 other states have similar councils.
Shumway also said some recent test results point toward a hopeful future. Utah's Latino eighth-graders and those learning English, for example, scored higher on last year's National Assessment of Educational Progress writing assessment than in the past. Shumway said state officials hope such changes translate into higher graduation rates in the future.
Cyprus High School counselor Craig Sudbury, who works largely with students learning English, said they face a number of challenges in addition to having to master a new language.
Often, credit from their previous high schools doesn't transfer to their new ones, and sometimes, they have to help their families pay the bills.
Sudbury said Granite School District tries to help students learning English through its newcomer program, where students can focus on studying the language before going to a traditional high school. Of the nation's 50 largest districts, the report ranked Granite 12th highest for its graduation rate of 71.5 percent in 2005. The report ranked Jordan School District second highest with a rate of 82.6 percent.
Diana Harvey, Salt Lake Community College director of assessment, knows firsthand the importance of finishing high school. Harvey said she pushed two of her children to earn their GEDs after they dropped out of school. They both passed the GED test. One is hoping for a career in fashion and the other is going for his associate's degree.
"You've got to have an education today," Harvey said. "You don't get anywhere if you drop out of school."
It's a problem that affects everyone, she said.
"If they don't graduate so they can support themselves, as a society, we're going to end up supporting them," Harvey said.