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Some Students Take Jagged Path to Graduation

As the nation moves toward a common graduation rate formula based on the number of students who obtain a diploma in four years, students like Jefferson Lara will appear to have fallen by wayside.

Lara’s education has not progressed on a neatly laid out timetable. 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 a night job so his mother could quit one of hers.  An hour and a half after his night shift ended at the grocery store, he is sitting in art class, sketching warriors strong and armored.

“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.”

It mattered little to him that he wouldn’t graduate in June with his peers, but he will not be counted as graduating on time. What should be taken into account, educators say, is that many students like Lara may not succeed on the traditional timeline, but they do eventually succeed. 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,” Smith added

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.”

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 cannot know how many are lost altogether.

Sarita Brown of Excelencia in Education, a Washington-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.

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 likes 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.”

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