Graduation gap persists: Local districts say poverty, cultural issues explain disparity in rates for minority students

Graduates receive their diplomas during Harvard High School's 2013 commencement 
ceremony Tuesday, May 21, 2013.
Graduates receive their diplomas during Harvard High School's 2013 commencement ceremony Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

Fewer minority students are receiving their high school diploma on time than other classmates, despite area high schools graduating all students at higher rates than the national average.

The graduation disparity locally mirrors a national trend that shows black and Hispanic students lagging behind white and Asian students when it comes to graduating in four years, a review of state and national data shows.

It's an issue familiar to area districts that serve diverse populations and grapple with achievement gaps between minority and white students throughout various grade levels.

But the disparity has more to do with poverty than race, said Ben Churchill, the assistant superintendent for District 300's high schools.

"It's about income," he said. "Kids from impoverished families learn fewer words in preschool years. The vocabulary deficit stays with them throughout high school ... That all ties into students from low-income families being less likely to graduate on time."

The Carpentersville-based school district last year graduated 72.7 percent of its black students and 79 percent of its Hispanic students, while 94.3 percent of white students and all of its Asian students graduated on time, state data shows.

Similar differences between demographics exist beyond Carpentersville. Recently released federal data that showed the United States' graduation rate reached 80 percent for the first time in history drew praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

But he cautioned that a disproportionate share of the remaining 20 percent represent black and Hispanics students, along with special-needs students and English-language learners.

Only 69 percent of black students and 73 percent of Hispanics across the country graduated in 2012, while 86 percent of white students and 88 percent of Asian students earned their diploma, according to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The center estimated the rates by dividing the number of high school graduates in a class by the number of students who entered that class as freshmen, barring some adjustments for transfer students.

Although far above national rates, school districts in Woodstock, McHenry and Harvard last year graduated fewer black and Hispanic students than other demographics.

At District 300, Churchill has found the district is less likely to graduate a black or Hispanic student from a low-income background versus a more affluent background.

The dynamic, he said, has long plagued schools tasked with trying to lift achievement among low-income students and adequately prepare them for adulthood.

The district in response has offered night courses and expanded summer classes to allow students, who might have to work multiple jobs, flexible schedules. Officials also have provided job training in fields like manufacturing for students who either don't plan to attend or can't afford a higher education.

At Harvard High School, administrators see poverty and students who transfer frequently as reasons for their low graduate rates. District 50 last year graduated only 73.3 percent of all its students on time.

"Poverty is certainly in play but sometimes language is a factor," said Principal Rob Zielinski, whose high school serves a predominant Hispanic population. "You start to put a lot of (straws) on that camel's back, and it doesn't move really fast."

The school consequently has started a freshmen tardiness program that allows newcomers to meet with counselors and after-school tutors. Since its inception a few years ago, the program has cut down the number of students who start their second year of high school without enough credits to be sophomores, Zielinski said.

Crystal Lake District 155, meanwhile, graduated 94.3 percent of its students – the highest rate in the area. Superintendent Johnnie Thomas said administrators, teachers and staff actively target graduation rates.

"In virtually everything we do, we embed the expectation that we are preparing our students for post-high school success," he said. "These expectations are part of our culture and programs."

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