When Rosa Beltran was going through high school in the late ’90s in a small town in southern Colorado, she never expected to graduate.
“My parents were very concerned about just working and trying to put food on the table. I don’t think I ever had that support from the school either,” Beltran said about her high school in Center, a predominantly Hispanic farming community in the San Luis Valley.
Beltran dropped out and became a teen mom. But she determined her children would finish school.
“It was always instilled to me, I’m going to graduate, I’m going to go to college,” her oldest daughter Marisa, now 25, said. “There was no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
Before ninth grade she learned she could take college classes as a student in high school. The school bused her to and from the college campus.
“It was a very small, supportive school,” she said.
Marisa Beltran graduated from Pueblo in 2015, during a decade when Colorado’s Hispanic graduation rate rose nearly 20 percentage points, double the gain for all students, and faster than for any other demographic.
Hispanic graduation rates rose dramatically for multiple reasons, including new school strategies, improved economic conditions, and the fierce determination of families. Still, Hispanic graduation and college completion rates lag behind those of white students. And with the pandemic exacting a high cost on Hispanic families’ welfare, many worry it will also chip away at recent gains in education.
Chalkbeat examined high school graduation rates as a part of Chasing Progress, a Colorado News Collaborative project on social, economic, and health equity among Black and Latino Coloradans. High school graduation holds the key to advanced education, better jobs, and higher salaries.
From 2010 to 2020, high school graduation rates for Hispanic students, who now make up more than a third of Colorado’s K-12 students, rose from 55.5% to 75.4%, a marked increase.
“Certainly they better have gone up, there was a lot of room to move up,” said Jim Chavez, executive director of the Latin American Educational Foundation.
In the same period, Hispanic dropout rates decreased by almost half to 2.8%, and the rate of Hispanic college students needing remedial classes dropped.
But Hispanic students are still less likely than white students to go to college, and nearly twice as likely as white students to require remedial classes.
So even when students graduate high school, they often face a difficult path, Chavez said.
And the pandemic threatens a decade of gains, as Hispanic families have been hard hit by job losses, death and severe illness from COVID, and disrupted learning. Hispanic graduation rates dipped 1.2% last year even as the rate for white students rose. Declines could continue as younger students who were more impacted make their way through high school.
To understand the changes, Chalkbeat talked to more than a dozen educators, activists, parents, and students and analyzed school district data to look for districts where Hispanic students now have a higher graduation rate than the state average for that group. Hispanic graduation rates dropped in only one large district between 2010 and 2020: District 49. The district did not grant an interview.
State and federal policies boosted graduation
In pinpointing causes for recent gains, some credit policies set more than a decade ago in Colorado. When former Gov. Bill Ritter was elected in 2006, he set a goal to cut the dropout rate in half in 10 years. Then in 2008 Colorado lawmakers set new goals for public education and in 2009 began rating high schools in part on their graduation rates.
That pressured districts to boost achievement and graduation rates, and spawned a system of nonprofits and consultants to help.
Social factors also contributed. For example, in the decade ending in 2020, Colorado’s pregnancy rate for Hispanic girls ages 15 to 19 dropped dramatically from 66.8 per 100,000 to 24.4 per 100,000, helping more girls to stay in school.
Hispanic families made economic gains in the last decade that may have eased pressure on teens to work while in school. The median household income for Latinos, according to Census data, was $57,790 in 2020, a 26% gain when adjusted for inflation.
Additionally, a federal reprieve from the threat of deportation may have boosted the value of education for students who are undocumented. As of December, Colorado had 13,720 recipients of what’s known as the DACA program, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
In the Beltran family, mom Rosa has noticed her children’s schools are more supportive than what she had experienced. She has seen her kids talking to college recruiters and getting multiple opportunities to think about a future after high school.
Still, daughter Marisa said she and her brother needed more help.
“We had to find tutoring, help each other, and ask for outside help,” Beltran said. “We did find it, but we had to figure it out ourselves.”
Ninth grade is a critical year
Steve Dobo, the founder and CEO of Zero Dropouts, credited the graduation gains to schools’ ability to dissect data — previously not a common practice.
He said nonprofits helped districts separate subgroups of struggling students — by race, gender, grade level, or other factors — to devise targeted solutions.
“The districts that we worked with really started to understand you really needed to do better in ninth grade,” Dobo said.
Several districts targeted students entering high school. After Superintendent Rico Munn arrived in Aurora in 2013, he found many freshmen weren’t receiving full schedules with required classes.
“If you start getting off track in ninth grade, that’s a problem,” Munn said.
The district examined data to identify problems and students who need help, and then worked to change systems and school culture, Munn said. Aurora also opened a college and career center at every high school. The newest ones opened last fall.
Aurora had a mere 34.2% Hispanic graduation rate in 2010, but that rate more than doubled, the greatest jump among Colorado’s larger districts, to 76.4% in 2020, before dipping slightly last year.
Intervention often looks like “teaching them how to be a high school student” — staying organized and asking teachers for help — said Susannah Halbrook, a ninth grade interventionist for Zero Dropouts.
In Greeley, early intervention means tracking ninth graders to create individual plans to ward off failure.
“Years ago most of our resources went to students who had three or four F’s already on their transcript,” said Deirdre Pilch, superintendent of Greeley-Evans District 6 schools.
Now, she said, “as soon as a grade starts to drop to a D, we’re intervening.”
Help where it’s needed
Andy Tucker, director of postsecondary and workforce readiness at the state education department, said he’s seen districts be “far more intentional” about equity work — “about engaging those students that maybe fall into those gaps.”
Saul Sanchez, 18, was invited to join after failing some classes freshman year. He doubted he would finish high school.
“I didn’t like school at all,” said Sanchez, who just graduated from Greeley’s Northridge High School. “I hated the fact that I got homework.”
Counselors and others tried to ask him how things were going when he was getting off track, but Sanchez didn’t believe they cared.
But the Student Recovery Program got through to him. He got help to catch up on credits. Counselors tracked his progress.
“They were always on top of me,” he said. They would ask if he remembered to turn in his assignments, or study for tests. “Back then I thought it was a pain they kept insisting.”
Somewhere along the way, Sanchez realized it all was for his benefit. And he bonded with the other students, who helped each other. Sanchez became a go-to resource for math help. The mutual aid paid off. Nearly all the seniors in the program graduated.
Preparing for the future
Another factor may be the increase in students taking courses offering both high school and college credit. Courses can be offered on a college campus or at high school. School districts pay the bill.
Known as concurrent enrollment, the program replaced more limited options in 2009. Data shows more students of all groups are taking concurrent enrollment, but Hispanic students are less likely than white students to take advantage of the program.
Alexandra Reyes Amaya, who graduated from Aurora’s Hinkley High School in 2020, said the program gave her confidence that she was prepared for college. But she only learned about the program from a friend’s older brother — barely in time for her senior year. She took night classes to fit more in her schedule.
Now in college, she’s on track to graduate a year early.
But college is only one path to success, and districts eager to keep students interested in coming to school are also increasing opportunities for career and technical education.
Chavez of the scholarship foundation cautioned that the messages that college isn’t for everyone are holding Hispanic students back.
“It’s being targeted and heard very disproportionately at the Black and Latino youth,” Chavez said. “They may make a good salary, but it’s cutting them short from a career of greater earning potential. It’s really cutting them short from earning a decision-making position — a position of leadership.”
Changing definitions of success
The rise in graduation rates also reflects a re-evaluation of how schools define success. Several districts have been reconsidering what it takes to pass a class. Known as standards-based grading, new guidelines encourage teachers to consider all evidence of student learning.
Mark Cousins, a regional director for Zero Dropouts and formerly a high school principal in Greeley, said he’s often talked with teachers who award no credit for late work. He believes giving partial credit is less likely to lead to a spiral of failure.
“You’re telling me that homework assignment has no value?” Cousins said.
Some districts have created pathways for students that set a different, sometimes lower bar for graduation. Colorado doesn’t require students to take an exam to graduate, as some other states do. Instead, districts can each set their own graduation requirements.
For the Class of 2022, the state raised the bar by requiring that districts show that students mastered English and math. Districts can use many measures, including SAT scores, passing a college class, or a student project as evidence.
Thompson and Pueblo created new diploma options. Since last year, Thompson has allowed students to graduate with fewer elective credits if they have passed core requirements including English, math, and science.
“We still know we’re providing a strong diploma,” said Theo Robison, Thompson’s director of secondary education.
Pueblo’s diplomas require the same number of credits, but different classes, such as a technical math course, for certain career fields.
“They’re just different avenues that lead to the same road,” said Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso.
Some people, however, worry that schools pass students without educating them well, just to boost graduation rates.
“Lowering the bar is something that has been done throughout time,” said Joe Molina, a Latino advocate in northern Colorado. He says that when he graduated in 1992, he only had a third grade reading level, and then taught himself more. “Are we really providing more opportunities?”
One measure school leaders look at to ensure their gains are real are remediation rates. In Colorado, the percent of Hispanic students needing remedial courses dropped 16 percentage points to 43.8%.
Enabling students to see various possibilities for their future helps keep them engaged and on track, said Jordan Bills, an adviser at Aurora’s career centers. She has taken students on college tours, connected them with professionals or with military recruiters, and helped families understand ways to pay for college.
“Our job is to bridge the gap of knowledge,” Bills said. “There has to be a little bit of autonomy and choice — giving them more autonomy to be the driver for their life.”
The pandemic presents new challenges
Looking ahead, district leaders are most concerned about missing and disengaged students.
“The biggest thing now that we are trying to understand family by family, is why a student is chronically absent,” said Munn, Aurora’s superintendent. “We’re hearing more and more, ‘they are working,’ or they’re providing care for someone while other family members are working.”
Mapleton Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio is considering online or hybrid learning for students who no longer see the value in spending most of their day sitting in a classroom.
“Is a school day the right number of hours?” Ciancio said.
In Pueblo, Superintendent Macaluso said students who were living in poverty are now also grappling with isolation, trauma, grief, and loss.
“When you’re experiencing hardship already, those things have a big impact,” she said.
Molina said, “Everybody’s been touched, some way somehow,” which affects how students engage with education. “There are a lot of people out there feeling hopeless and just trying to live in the moment.”
Amid that daily struggle, the overall steady gain in academics is hard to see. But it’s evident in individual stories.
Rosa Beltran said that she is proud of her three children, including two who have gone to college.
“My mother was the one that pushed my father to come to the United States; that was her sacrifice for us,” Beltran said. “I sacrificed a lot of not being able to be with my kids a lot because I had to work.”
“Now it’s just this proudness that you carry with you. My hopes for them are that they have a career so that they can provide for their families and not have to worry,” she said. “To have a stable job and have insurance. My parents always had to worry. My husband and I always had to worry.”
Those sacrifices and hopes drive what students refer to as ganas — their will.
“If it weren’t for my parents’ sacrifices, I wouldn’t be here,” Marisa Beltran said. “So I’m going to make sure all their work was not for nothing.”
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at firstname.lastname@example.org.