Utah’s high school graduation rate continues to rise, according to the Utah State Office of Education.
In the 2013 school year, 81 percent of Utah seniors graduated, an increase of three percent from the previous year. The rate has steadily increased for the past five years. It is up 12 percent from 2008.
“This increase comes despite great challenges facing Utah school districts,” said Timothy G. Morrison, associate chair in the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University. For example, the Provo school district recently faced a lawsuit that has led to a change in grading policy. Grades can no longer be linked to attendance, and students can opt out of state testing.
Morrison explained how demographics in the state have dramatically shifted over the past 20 years. Also, the requirements for graduation have not been eased but actually are higher.
“The fact that more students are graduating is a tribute to the dedication of Utah educators,” Morrison added.
While the increase is encouraging, many still wonder about the 20 percent who are not graduating.
Mark Peterson, director of public relations at the Utah State Office of Education, explained that those who are not graduating are mostly students with disabilities or those from minority groups.
“The obstacle is reaching out to students with disabilities. We need more resources, and that is labor intensive,” Peterson said. “Minority groups and the underserved population also require more outreach.”
Despite the challenges, in the last school year state reports show a 4 percent increase in graduation among students with disabilities and a 9 percent increase among English language learners.
Recently Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert signed a bill into law to allow for more financial resources to education. Utah still lags behind the national average and reports the lowest funding per pupil in the nation.
The highest reported graduation rate comes from Davis School District at 89 percent, compared to the lowest, 71 percent in Granite School District. Davis covers such cities as Bountiful and Clearfield. Granite spreads across the Salt Lake area and includes communities that are home to many immigrant populations.
Reports indicate that 68 percent of Latino students graduated in the 2013 school year. The Latino population, while composing Utah’s largest minority group, continues with the lowest graduation rates demographically. Rates remain 17 percentage points behind those of white students.
Helen Patterson, a GEAR UP counselor for Utah Valley University, explained that one of the obstacles school districts face with minority groups is a difficulty communicating, not only verbally but also culturally.
“Many Latino families do not have access to the Internet. Some parents do not speak English and work two or three jobs,” Patterson stated. “There is also the expectation for the older children to help out with younger siblings.”
Patterson explained that while many Latino parents express a desire for their children to be educated, they also have immediate economic needs that must be met. They don’t see the pay-off of investing in an education.
GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. It is a federal effort designed to prepare middle and high school students, along with their parents, for college.
The program intends to bridge the gap between high school and college by providing ACT preparation courses (Hispanic students typically average a 14–15 on the English portion), financial literacy instruction to parents and offering campus visits. Full-time tutors are also being implemented into high school classrooms.
Patterson stated that the programs to make a difference are there. Now it’s up to the students to take advantage of them.
There is a Spanish saying, “El ‘no’ ya lo tienes, ahora hay que ir por el ‘sí.'” Translated, this means, “You already have the ‘no,’ now go for the ‘yes.'” Patterson hopes this is a motto that minority youth and parents will adopt.
Brigham Young University’s Office of Multicultural Student Services sponsors a program each summer called SOAR. The weeklong camps welcome minority high school students from across the country and offer them college preparation courses and motivation to continue their education.