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Willmar, Minn., Latino graduation rate shows steady improvement

In this undated photo, Maria Moreno, left, helps Astrid Albeno adjust her graduation cap prior to the commencement ceremony for the Willmar High School Class of 2010. Latinos are graduating at a rate 60 percent higher than just 15 years ago. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Luis Fuentes and Maria De La Cruz will be the first in their family to graduate from high school next spring, Ana Espinoza the first to head off to college.

When the three get their diplomas with the other members of the Willmar Senior High Class of 2012, they will also be part of a trend of increasing Latino graduation rates.

Since the school opened, the percentage of Latino students graduating has moved from 15.5 percent in 1995 to 77.8 percent in 2010, the last year state statistics are available.

"That's not fantastic, but it's awfully good," Principal Rob Anderson said recently.

The 2010 the school saw the highest percentage and the highest number of Latino grads since opening 17 years ago.

Anderson said he has looked at trends from the first five years in the school and for the last five years. "We've more than reversed the numbers over time," Anderson said.

From 1995 to 1999, the average graduation rate was 32 percent (57 students) with 68 percent (120 students) dropping out. From 2006 to 2010, the average graduation rate was 71 percent (152 students) graduating and 29 percent (61 students) dropping out.

"It's a huge positive shift," Anderson said.

Many people have worked to increase the graduation rate, he said, especially the students, their families and the school staff.

"I think it's a credit to the families saying, 'It's important for you to graduate,'" Anderson said. "It's a ticket to a lot of opportunity."

A major factor is the SMART Club. The club is available to any student and offers homework help and tutoring. It's supported by the West Central Integration Collaborative. School success coordinator Jeanette Oehlers oversees it.

The collaborative's goal is to keep students in school and see them through to graduation.

The climbing graduation rate is good news, said Idalia "Charly" Leuze, executive director of the West Central Integration Collaborative. "I think we do have something to do with it."

After SMART Club started nearly 10 years ago, Willmar's Latino graduation rate rose above 50 percent. The upward trend has continued.

Leuze said families have helped by "realizing their kids need to stay in school." In the past, Latino teens may have felt family pressure to quit school and help support their families, she added.

"Without SMART Club, I probably would be failing right now; I may not be a senior," said Fuentes, 17.

A year ago, he wasn't really thinking about grades, he admitted.

"I had an epiphany," he said, and described report cards full of Cs and Ds in the first half of his junior year and As and Bs in the second half.

He credited Oehlers with helping him make the change.

De La Cruz, 18, and Espinoza, 17, agreed that Oehlers and the club have helped them, too.

De La Cruz has gone to SMART Club since ninth grade. Without it, "I probably would be not in school anymore," she said.

Espinoza said her grades were As and Bs in middle school but fell when she went to the senior high. SMART Club helped her turn things around, and now she's taking Advanced Placement courses.

Oehlers is a good listener, the students said, and she gets after them about turning in assignments.

"She's like a second mom to us," De La Cruz said. "She's helped me with my personal life; I knew I could go talk to her."

As the students talked about the positive influence she and SMART Club have had for them, Oehlers listened and smiled. It does feel good, she said.

She tries to be a mentor and set an example for the students, she said. She had similar experiences when she was a teenager in Willmar, and she tries to offer guidance so they can make good decisions.

"I had that person in my life once," she said. "I lived in poverty my whole life, and there was a teacher who was really important to me."

Oehlers is studying to become a math teacher, a path she said she may not have chosen before her job with SMART Club.

The students said it helps, too, that the school's students are increasingly comfortable with each other. Fuentes said he's seen a change since freshman year.

Espinoza was chosen homecoming queen this year, the first Latina queen in the school's history. "We all get along," she said.

Anderson was pleased to hear their comments. "We've certainly tried," he said. "Our basic philosophy is every student has the right to come to Willmar High School and to have a peaceful day."

The minority population now is about one-third of the school, and in the 1990s, it was around 10 percent.

"There's a much bigger support group," Anderson said

More minority students participate in sports and activities now, and that helps add to their academic success, Oehlers said. "It helps build commitment and a connection to school."

All three students are planning to continue their education after high school. De La Cruz plans to study cosmetology at Ridgewater College, and Fuentes is looking at the auto body program at Ridgewater. Espinoza hopes to go into sports journalism.

Anderson said another predictor of graduation for the students is their families' decisions to stay in one community for extended periods of time.

The students said their families have moved frequently at times for family and economic reasons.

"I hated it when my parents did that," Oehlers said.

"It's hard to get by in a new school," Fuentes said, and he remembers how he felt after moving to Willmar nine years ago.

Espinoza said she likes the school in Willmar better than the one she attended in Texas for part of last year. She was glad to come back to Willmar, she said.

She likes the opportunities available here. "Who would have thought I would take Chinese?"

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340