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Graduating ASAP, if Not on State Timeline

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By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

An hour and a half after his night shift ended at the grocery store, Jefferson Lara is sitting in art class, sketching warriors -- strong and armored.

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Lara's education has never been neatly laid out in class schedules that flow into extracurricular activities. A former gang member, he was expelled from ninth grade, spent time in Peru with his father and entered Arlington Mill High School Continuation program his junior year. He took the night job so his mother could quit one of hers.

It mattered little to him that he wouldn't graduate with his peers in June -- he still would get his diploma. "I was raised to put family first," the fifth-year senior says. "Not a lot of people know what I have to go through every day. They think I'm just a regular kid."

As the nation moves toward adopting a common graduation rate formula based on the number of students who obtain a diploma in four years, there are students such as Lara who will appear to have been failed by their school systems. They will not be counted as graduating on time. But what should be taken into account, educators say, is that many are succeeding -- just not on the traditional timeline.

Like Lara, many young Latino immigrants must juggle adult responsibilities with school, and they are creating alternative, stop-and-start paths toward a diploma.

"There are some where we probably failed them and they dropped out" and never finished school, Arlington County Superintendent Robert G. Smith said. But then there are those who come back at 20 or 21, he said. "They would be counted among our dropouts, but sometimes they are our greatest success stories."

As educators strive to close racial and ethnic achievement gaps, school systems are examining the educational experience of Latino students. Without knowing how many are succeeding under the radar, they can't know how many are lost altogether.

Sarita Brown of Excelencia in Education, a District-based nonprofit organization, said the number of Latino students who don't fit the four-year model is growing fast.

"Ten years ago, for sure, these students would have been labeled as outliers, and collectively we would have all probably said they are doing it wrong," Brown said. But, she said, that is changing.

Diana S. Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso, describes it as more Latino students taking the commuter train instead of the express.

"Life's demands are so great that they do a lot of getting on and getting off the train," Natalicio said.

Federal rules issued in recent weeks call for schools nationwide to measure how many ninth-graders receive a diploma within four years so that rates are comparable across states by 2011. Virginia is one of 21 states that have moved in that direction, releasing its data last month. The graduation rates will be included in state report cards on schools and school systems.


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