Las Vegas Sun

July 24, 2014

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Minorities have poor graduation rate in Nevada

Nevada scored poorly in a new report of graduation rates for black and Hispanic students. The report showed a chasm between the percentage of white high schoolers who earn diplomas and their minority classmates.

Only four in 10 Hispanic and black students graduated from Nevada schools in 2001, compared with six in 10 white students, according to the study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Only four states had a lower Hispanic graduation rate than Nevada, and only two states -- New Mexico and Ohio -- had a lower graduation rate for black students, according to the study.

The study ranked Nevada 49th among other states and the District of Columbia in the total percentage of students who graduated from high school. The state's graduation rate of 54.7 percent beat only Florida and South Carolina.

The study found that nationwide 75 percent of white students graduated in 2001 compared with 50 percent of black students, 53 percent of Hispanic students and 51 percent of Native American students.

"The findings presented do not paint a flattering portrait of high school graduation for public schools in the United States," the report concludes. "Students from historically disadvantaged minority groups -- American Indian, Hispanic, black -- have little more than a 50-50 chance of finishing high school with a diploma."

State Superintendent Keith Rheault said the report's percentages were lower than the figures his office had for the class of 2001.

The state education department found the statewide average graduation rate was 63 percent overall, 47 percent for black students, 45 percent for Hispanic students and 70 percent for white students.

The difference in the percentages is a result of using different formulas, Rheault said.

Calculating graduation rates -- and comparing one state to another -- is difficult because of the wide variety of methods used, Rheault said.

"We're almost never talking about apples to apples," Rheault said.

Nevada, like many states, has just begun collecting graduation data by ethnic group. A handful of states, including California and New York, have yet to do so.

No one from either the state or the Clark County School District disputes that minority graduation rates -- however calculated -- are too low.

"Closing the gap between our minority students and increasing graduation rates overall is a top priority," said Agustin Orci, deputy superintendent of instruction for the district. "We're trying to catch up and I think we're making some strides. A lot of these studies are using figures that are three or even four years behind, so we may have to wait that long to see the full results of what we're doing."

In fact, state figures showed Clark County improved its graduation rate for Hispanic students to 46 percent in 2002, up from 43 percent in 2001. The graduation rate for black students was 47 percent both years, according to state figures.

To improve minority student graduation rates the district must tackle the problem early on, Orci said. A new intensive reading program has been put in place in middle schools with high-minority enrollment, and the project will continue next year at several high schools, Orci said.

But Nevada and Clark County face unique challenges in keeping students in school. No other district has had the explosive population growth or the high student transience rate of Clark County. There's also the matter of easy employment, said Orville Nutting, a consultant for the Nevada Department of Education who authored three studies of the state's dropout rates.

"The service industry is our primary source of employment and young people can get jobs that pay quite well without a high school diploma," Nutting said. "That's a real distraction from education."

At Desert Pines High School, which at 63 percent has the district's largest population of Hispanic students, Principal Roger Jacks said over the past two years there has been an intensive effort to improve graduation rates. Outreach programs, better staff development and and on-site tutorial programs have paid off, Jacks said. Desert Pines' graduation rate climbed from 60 percent in 2002 to 74 percent last year.

Many Desert Pines students have part-time jobs working 20 hours or more per week, and that results in poor attendance rates, incomplete homework and a need for remedial classes, Jacks said.

"We've had to come up with alternative ways for our students to complete their educations, recognizing that they have a lot of roadblocks along the way," Jacks said. "Our job is to remove as many of those roadblocks as we can."

At Cheyenne High School, which at 33.5 percent has the district's highest population of black students, a new mentoring program aimed at at-risk students is already paying off. The school identified 40 students who were habitual truants and at risk of dropping out and paired them with a teacher, Assistant Principal Jeff Geihs said. Since the program began in August the overall attendance rate for the students has climbed from 65 percent to 74 percent. The students' overall GPAs have also improved, Geihs said.

The initial success has been so promising the program is going to be expanded, Geihs said.

"We're going to see some of these kids in caps and gowns that I don't know would otherwise be there in June," Geihs said.

Aldo Aguirre, a candidate in 2002 for the university Board of Regents, said that the figures for Hispanics can be misleading, because they don't distinguish between those born here and recent immigrants.

"Someone born into the culture and language understands the system and has coursed from elementary to high school and is equipped to meet its challenges," he said.

He also said that while he couldn't comment on the formula used to obtain the study's results, "the question is, what is responsible for the outcome of low graduation rates for minorities?"

Many Hispanic students don't take the sorts of courses needed to pass the exam for graduating from high school, at least in part because parents aren't familiar with those requirements.

"We're setting them up for failure," he said.

Still another factor is the low percentage of minority teachers, which leaves students lacking role models, he said.

"We're doing poorly on recruiting teachers that reflect the population as it changes," Aguirre said.

The context in which all these factors play out -- the service economy -- doesn't help, Aguirre said.

"Living in a community with (people) that work in jobs that don't require education and allow them to earn good salaries affects the whole population," he said.

The Civil Rights Project report also criticized the federal No Child Left Behind Act for not holding states accountable for minority student graduation rates. Under the federal law each state was allowed to determine its own progress goals, allowing even the smallest increase in overall graduation rates to count as improvement.

Sun reporter

Timothy Pratt contributed to this story.

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