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Vanessa Lagunas hopes to become the first member of her immediate family to go to college.

As junior class president and a cheerleader, Lagunas is well on her way to both graduating from Salt Lake City's Highland High and entering college to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

"What my parents wanted was to give me a better life than what they had," Lagunas said. "I wanted to become something bigger and help them out."

It's not an unusual sentiment among teens across Utah. What is uncommon is that at Highland, Latino students as a group have the highest graduation rate in the school. It's a rare feat across the state and the nation.

For years, education leaders nationwide have struggled with how to close gaps between the graduation rates of minority and white students. Statewide, Latinos have a high school graduation rate of 68 percent, compared with 85 percent for white students.

At Highland, 84 percent of Latino students graduated last year, compared with 82 percent of white students.

Latinos are the largest minority group in Utah, making up about 16 percent of all public school students. At Highland, Latinos make up about 24 percent of the school's more than 1,500 students.

So how is the school doing it?

As with many academic success stories, there isn't one simple answer.

But what may be surprising is what the school is not doing. It's not necessarily singling out Latinos with special programs.

'I may have cried' • Since taking over about 10 years ago, Highland principal Paul Schulte has made changes that are aimed at all students.

It's a somewhat unique approach at a time when programs such as Latinos in Action have succeeded in many schools by specifically targeting Latinos.

"I don't necessarily always buy into that I have to have a special focus on the Latino kids or the Polynesian kids," Schulte said. "I've always kind of run the school [thinking] if you just do the right thing for kids, for the school, it takes care of everybody."

Schulte knew something had to change when, as Highland's new principal, he pulled up freshman grades for the first time. They had received more than 800 F's in just one term.

"I may have cried, I was just so depressed," Schulte said.

Soon afterward, the school began its Freshman Success program. Three staff members now devote all their time to tracking freshman grades. Those staffers call struggling students to their offices to discuss ways to get back on track. They also reward those finding success.

"It may be annoying," said junior Alexis Flores, "but just having them call you down to check your grades and see how you're doing was really helpful."

Flores is now in the National Honor Society and a student-athlete, but he wasn't always headed toward a promising future. He struggled with his grades in junior high, half-jokingly saying that he was a "punk."

But he turned his academics around and petitioned Schulte to attend Highland — which is otherwise not his home high school. He promised Schulte he'd take school seriously. He also jumped into sports at the school, which he credits with helping him stay focused.

"It's helped me stay off the streets," Flores said.

He said sometimes teens from his Glendale neighborhood are considered "bad kids."

"That's not the kind of rep I wanted," Flores said. "I just decided that's not going to be me, and sports has helped me a lot."

Keeping track of kids • At Highland, all incoming freshmen are encouraged to choose two extracurricular activities.

It's a way to keep them interested in attending school and keeping their grades up. To play soccer, for example, kids must maintain a 2.5 grade point average and aren't allowed to practice if they don't meet that. They also have study halls before practice.

"They were, like, on us 24/7 to have the grades," said Luis Orozco, a senior and captain of the soccer team.

Counselor Karrie Jarratt said that about three-fourths of the boys' soccer team is Latino.

Kids who don't play sports get the same type of encouragement.

Every Thursday, all day, a student services council made up of administrators and counselors meets with struggling students and their parents to discuss their individual issues and how to handle them. They also follow up later.

Highland also tries to offer all of its students opportunities to keep up and excel academically. The school has its own alternative program, allowing kids to complete course packets for free when they fall behind in credits and referring a few students to the district's alternative high school, Horizonte.

"It's not the best educational practice," Schulte said of allowing students to complete packets for credit, "but it does save kids."

Assistant Principal Katie Eskelson-Ieremia said about 10 percent of the students complete at least one packet during their years at Highland, though most kids do only one.

The school also changed its attendance policy six or seven years ago, making a big difference for kids, Schulte said. Now, kids who accrue more than three absences in a term must make up that seat time. But they can make it up twice as fast through positive activities.

For example, participating in an hour of tutoring counts as two hours toward making up absences. If students attend school for 10 days in a row, they can get 10 hours off their absences.

It's a policy that runs somewhat counter to a current trend in education of easing up on seat time requirements in favor of making sure kids are simply competent in the subjects they study.

But Schulte said it has been a success — chronic absenteeism has dropped from 15 percent to 6 percent.

"It is about competency," Schulte said, "but if you're not in the class, you can't learn the material."

'It's about relationships' • Underlying the policies, procedures and programs are two principles that Highland's leaders say make all the difference: inclusiveness and relationships.

Years ago, white kids gathered on the east side of the cafeteria and minority kids on the west side, as if to mirror the makeup of Salt Lake City itself.

Now, it's more of a mishmash, Flores said. "Everybody talks to everybody," he said. "Everybody's cool with everybody."

Highland leaders also try to make everyone feel included by handing out free school T-shirts and spirit shirts, supported by sponsors. It might seem like a small gesture, but in a school where about half of the kids come from low-income families, it can help keep those unable to afford them from feeling left out.

Schulte and other educators also work to make sure the kids know they're an important part of the school.

Schulte's desk faces three large windows into a main hallway. He keeps the blinds open so he can see the kids as they walk the halls and they can see him.

Administrators often greet kids by name and sit with them during lunch.

"I think it's about relationships," Jarratt said. "Somebody's got to know their names."

Schulte acknowledges that Highland is not perfect. The school, like every other, has its problems. It earned a grade of D on the state's new school grading system.

And the graduation rate of its white students is a few percentage points lower than the rate for white kids statewide. But graduation rates are rising for white and Latino students, as well as for several other groups, and Schulte said that's the most important thing.

Students know someone's watching them from the time they enter school to the time they cross the graduation stage, diploma in hand.

"I know if I miss class and see my teacher in the hallway, they're going to give me a lecture," said Orozco, who's thinking about attending Salt Lake Community College or going to school in Wyoming to possibly study computer science. "There's just a lot of people that will not let you fall." —

School's (almost) out for summer

Schools across the state have been wrapping up classes last week and this week. Below are the last days of school for area districts:

Alpine, May 30

Canyons, June 4

Davis, May 30

Granite, June 5

Jordan, June 6

Murray, June 6

Park City, June 5

Salt Lake City, June 3