When Rosa Beltran was going through high school in the late ’90s in a small town in southern Colorado, she never expected to graduate.
“My parents were very concerned about just working and trying to put food on the table. I don't think I ever had that support from the school either,” Beltran said about her high school in Center, a predominantly Hispanic farming community in the San Luis Valley.
Beltran dropped out and became a teen mom. But she determined her children would finish school.
“It was always instilled to me, I’m going to graduate, I’m going to go to college,” her oldest daughter Marisa, now 25, said. “There was no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
Before ninth grade she learned she could take college classes as a student in high school. The school bused her to and from the college campus.
“It was a very small, supportive school,” she said.
Marisa Beltran graduated from Pueblo in 2015, during a decade when Colorado’s Hispanic graduation rate rose nearly 20 percentage points, double the gain for all students, and faster than for any other demographic.
Hispanic graduation rates rose dramatically for multiple reasons, including new school strategies, improved economic conditions, and the fierce determination of families. Still, Hispanic graduation and college completion rates lag behind those of white students. And with the pandemic exacting a high cost on Hispanic families’ welfare, many worry it will also chip away at recent gains in education.
Chalkbeat examined high school graduation rates as a part of Chasing Progress, a Colorado News Collaborative project on social, economic, and health equity among Black and Latino Coloradans. High school graduation holds the key to advanced education, better jobs, and higher salaries.
From 2010 to 2020, high school graduation rates for Hispanic students, who now make up more than a third of Colorado’s K-12 students, rose from 55.5% to 75.4%, a marked increase.
“Certainly they better have gone up, there was a lot of room to move up,” said Jim Chavez, executive director of the Latin American Educational Foundation.
At the same time, Hispanic dropout rates decreased by almost half to 2.8%, and the rate of Hispanic college students needing remedial classes decreased.
But Hispanic students are still less likely than white students to go to college, and nearly twice as likely as white students to require remedial classes.
So even when students graduate high school, they often face a difficult path, Chavez said.
And the pandemic threatens a decade of gains, as Hispanic families have been hard hit by job losses, death and severe illness from COVID, and disrupted learning. Hispanic graduation rates dipped 1.2% last year even as the rate for white students rose. Declines could continue as younger students who were more impacted make their way through high school.
To understand the changes, Chalkbeat talked to more than a dozen educators, activists, parents, and students and analyzed school district data to look for districts where Hispanic students now have a higher graduation rate than the state average for that group. Hispanic graduation rates dropped in only one large district between 2010 and 2020: District 49. The district did not grant Chalkbeat an interview.
State and federal policies boosted graduation
In pinpointing causes for recent gains, some credit policies set more than a decade ago in Colorado. When former Gov. Bill Ritter was elected in 2006, he set a goal to cut the dropout rate in half in 10 years. Then in 2008 Colorado lawmakers set new goals for public education and in 2009 began rating high schools in part on their graduation rates.
That pressured districts to boost achievement and graduation rates, and spawned a system of nonprofits and consultants to help.