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.
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.
Virginia's numbers showed that Latino students in the Class of 2008 were less likely than others to graduate on time. Their rate of 70 percent was lower than the rate for all other racial and ethnic groups and 23 percentage points behind the top-performing group, students of Asian descent. The discrepancy is wider at some Northern Virginia high schools, including Arlington's Wakefield High. The graduation rate there was 47 percent for Hispanic students, 69 percent for blacks, 77 percent for Asians and 86 percent for whites.
Arlington administrators say Wakefield's numbers reflect the many students from that school's zone who move to Arlington Mill. At the alternative school, where about 85 percent of students are Hispanic, it is easy to find students who have dropped out several times before coming back. Others, mostly recent immigrants, didn't enroll until adulthood, working for several years before deciding to get a diploma. In Lara's art class, he is one of at least four Latino students who were part of the freshman class of 2004 and who, as seniors, fell short by a few credits.
"It may take a little longer, but they get there," Arlington Mill Principal Barbara Thompson said. "The final outcome is much more important than the snapshot in time the data provides."
Maryland will not release the newly formulated rates until 2011, but schools are seeing many students who will graduate -- just not in four years.
Diana Anaya, who is on the honor roll at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, was supposed to have graduated last year. But, she said, she and her younger sister live alone and must work to pay rent, buy food and, when they can, send money to their family in El Salvador. On a typical day, Anaya works cleaning a library until midnight and then is at school before 7:30 a.m.
"My goal was to study here and get a degree from here, so I am working hard," the 19-year-old said. Still, it is difficult sometimes when she notices how different her life is from those of other students. "Sometimes, I wish to be in their place, to not have so much responsibility and to get more time to be successful in school."
At her school, where more than half of the students are Latino, she is far from alone. Principal Kevin Lowndes said he has seen an increase in requests for half-day schedules from students who have to work.
Remy Lopez, 20, is another fifth-year senior at the school who is supporting himself. Most days, he said, he barely has time to change for work after school, let alone study. Still, he added, he knows he has to graduate. He has a 13-year-old sister in Guatemala who is counting on it.
"Right now, I'm her superhero," Lopez said.
Emma Violand-Sanchez, who last week became the first Latina elected to the Arlington School Board, said she knows such stories well. She recently met a 17-year-old who had been living and working in the county since he was 13 but hadn't gone to school. She helped him enroll, she said, only to see him withdraw at 18, then return to take evening classes. "Not only did he have to support himself, he had to support family in Guatemala," Violand-Sanchez said. "But I don't think that's the only reason students aren't graduating."
Instead, she said, the on-time graduation rates highlight a crisis educators must address.
"We need to have a plan," Violand-Sanchez said. "We need to get involved in this."
At T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, the on-time graduation rate for Hispanic students was 57 percent, compared with 76 percent for blacks, 87 percent for whites and 91 percent for Asians.
Ingris Moran, 17, a senior at T.C. Williams, is on track to graduate, but she said she knows many Latino students who struggle. Her older sister, she said, dropped out as a junior.
"They feel they are not getting encouraged enough. They feel like nobody has high expectations of them," she said. "Teachers worry if you pass their tests or their final exams, but they don't have conversations with you personally about what you want to do in life."
She and other students have been working with Tenants and Workers United, a grass-roots organization in Alexandria, to create a plan for the school system to increase student success. It calls for academic advisers to work with students and their parents to create individualized courses of study.
Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman said he and the School Board already had been moving in that direction.
"These are real kids with distinct needs, so let's create distinct programs," he said.
Next year, Virginia and other states will release a five-year graduation rate, which still will not capture the complete picture but will include students such as Lara. When he did not graduate on time, the 18-year-old enrolled in a dual program at the school that lets him receive credits from Northern Virginia Community College.
"I know I'm doing good," Lara said. "Out of all my friends, I'm the first one to go to college. . . . Some got their GEDs. Some just didn't even bother. There are some that are still in school but they are two or three years behind."
Still, the strain of his carefully balanced days can be seen in a tattooed rosary that wraps around his right wrist.
Asked about it, he looks down at the cross imprinted just above his thumb, and pauses. "I will once in a while pray to God to make everything better," he said, "to make my life a little easier."