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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alexis Flores, 17, right, with girlfriend Vanessa Lagunas, 17, Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at Highland High. Both Flores, who plays football and rugby and Lagunas, who is junior class president and a cheerleader credit Highland High for pushing the two of them to excel.
Latino students boast Highland High’s top graduation rate

Latinos aren’t singled out by special programs; rather, programs help all students and emphasize relationships and inclusiveness.

First Published Jun 02 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jun 02 2014 04:11 pm

Vanessa Lagunas hopes to become the first member of her immediate family to go to college.

As junior class president and a cheerleader, Lagunas is well on her way to both graduating from Salt Lake City’s Highland High and entering college to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

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"What my parents wanted was to give me a better life than what they had," Lagunas said. "I wanted to become something bigger and help them out."

It’s not an unusual sentiment among teens across Utah. What is uncommon is that at Highland, Latino students as a group have the highest graduation rate in the school. It’s a rare feat across the state and the nation.

For years, education leaders nationwide have struggled with how to close gaps between the graduation rates of minority and white students. Statewide, Latinos have a high school graduation rate of 68 percent, compared with 85 percent for white students.

At Highland, 84 percent of Latino students graduated last year, compared with 82 percent of white students.

Latinos are the largest minority group in Utah, making up about 16 percent of all public school students. At Highland, Latinos make up about 24 percent of the school’s more than 1,500 students.

So how is the school doing it?

As with many academic success stories, there isn’t one simple answer.

But what may be surprising is what the school is not doing. It’s not necessarily singling out Latinos with special programs.

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‘I may have cried’ » Since taking over about 10 years ago, Highland principal Paul Schulte has made changes that are aimed at all students.

It’s a somewhat unique approach at a time when programs such as Latinos in Action have succeeded in many schools by specifically targeting Latinos.

"I don’t necessarily always buy into that I have to have a special focus on the Latino kids or the Polynesian kids," Schulte said. "I’ve always kind of run the school [thinking] if you just do the right thing for kids, for the school, it takes care of everybody."

Schulte knew something had to change when, as Highland’s new principal, he pulled up freshman grades for the first time. They had received more than 800 F’s in just one term.

"I may have cried, I was just so depressed," Schulte said.

Soon afterward, the school began its Freshman Success program. Three staff members now devote all their time to tracking freshman grades. Those staffers call struggling students to their offices to discuss ways to get back on track. They also reward those finding success.

"It may be annoying," said junior Alexis Flores, "but just having them call you down to check your grades and see how you’re doing was really helpful."

Flores is now in the National Honor Society and a student-athlete, but he wasn’t always headed toward a promising future. He struggled with his grades in junior high, half-jokingly saying that he was a "punk."

But he turned his academics around and petitioned Schulte to attend Highland — which is otherwise not his home high school. He promised Schulte he’d take school seriously. He also jumped into sports at the school, which he credits with helping him stay focused.

"It’s helped me stay off the streets," Flores said.

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