Utah graduation rates rise overall despite disadvantages of pandemic

Native American students see the largest drop, while graduation rate for Black students jumps 4.4% in 2020 and 11% over five years.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Sara Holbrook celebrates as she rides in the parade of 2020 graduates in a “drive-thru” graduation ceremony at Alta High, Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Eight years ago, when Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Board of Education set a goal of a 90% graduation rate by 2020, they didn’t factor a pandemic into that plan. So, when a report this week revealed 88.2% of seniors picked up a diploma this spring, the board took it as a victory.

“With a couple of notable exceptions, we’re very happy with them,” board spokesman Mark Peterson said of the rates. “Given all the obstacles these students are facing, we still have an overall increase in graduation rates, and that’s fantastic.”

Schools shuttered their buildings suddenly in March when the first outbreak of COVID-19 swept the nation. Children and teachers alike were thrust into a virtual learning format and had to contend with associated issues, such as finding enough computers, internet connectivity and a place to learn.

Still, most of those seniors who stuck with it appear to have eventually earned their diplomas. Overall, the graduation rate grew 0.8% and it was up 0.9% in six demographic categories, according to the board report.

Students who identify as African American/Black made the most significant gains, with their graduation rates rising 4.4% over the past year. Over the past five years, their graduation rate has improved 11%.

Students who are economically disadvantaged saw the second greatest jump, a 1.1% improvement over last year.

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Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake City chapter of the NAACP, said great lengths were taken by her organization and others to clear obstacles for students this spring. Mobile hot spot buses were called in and Chromebooks and laptops were distributed. Ultimately, though, she believes the bump can be attributed to fewer distractions from schoolwork.

“I think that they had more time to be at home, to be able to study, to do their homework and not have as many extracurricular activities going on,” Williams said. “I think that’s overall, not just in the African American community, but overall.”

Still, the student group that most stumbled in terms of graduation rates is also the one whose population has been among the hardest hit during the pandemic.

The graduation rate for those who identify as American Indian plummeted 6.4% this year. That more than halved the strides the group had made continuously over the past four years and reverted it back to levels not seen since 2016.

The decline also dropped American Indian students to the bottom of the nine demographic student groups the board monitors. In comparison, they reported the fifth-best rate of graduation last year.

Much of that descent can be tied to a general lack of resources on tribal lands and in remote areas to cope with the sudden shutdown of schools in March, said Harold Foster, the board’s American Indian specialist. It also reflects on the virus’s considerable death toll in the areas on and near tribal lands.

“I think this is no fault of the students at all, or the parents or the schools or the teachers. This pandemic, it the ripped the heart out of a lot of people,” Foster said. “And I see that there’s a lot of hardship right now that everybody’s going through.”

Going forward, “I think that we just kind of sidestep this issue and we have to make a new path, make a new trail. We have to pick up the pieces where the pieces were dropped and continue what we’re doing in terms of becoming educated.”

The only other group to see a drop in graduation rates was students who identified themselves as Asian. They saw a 1.7% decline this year and a 2.3% drop over the past two years. The group with the highest graduation rate the past four years, Asian students (89.7%) dropped this year below white students (90.7%).

Foster said there’s reason to believe American Indian students’ graduation trajectories, at least, will be on the upswing again in 2021. He noted that cell towers are being erected, electricity is being installed and computers are becoming more commonplace in homes.

In addition, he said, Title VI coordinators — who provide American Indian students with academic help, cultural lessons and mentoring — are now able to do their jobs by checking in with students at their homes and, this fall, at their schools.

“I’m looking forward to the future,” he said. “You know, if we keep dwelling on the things that happened in the past, it kind of erodes your mindset. And I think we owe we owe the students more than that.

“We owe these students a success story here.”