Students overcome tall odds, and missteps, to graduate

Adolfo Saldana Lara graduates from high school
Adolfo Saldana-Lara, right, walked offstage after receiving his diploma Monday at the John F. Kennedy Senior High School graduation ceremony at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Adolfo Saldana-Lara overcame a lot of obstacles to make it through high school, some of them of his own making.

So when Saldana-Lara addressed 350 of his peers graduating from Bloomington Kennedy High School on Monday, he wasn't in it for laughs.

"I feel like this is a very serious moment," he said before his speech. "Well, at least for me, because nobody in my family has graduated but me."

Saldana-Lara took a serious tone at commencement because like him, most Kennedy students are low-income students from communities of color. He wanted all to savor what they had accomplished.

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"For some, the road to graduation was the toughest accomplishment they have ever taken," he told them. "Education is a gift, placed in front of you, to make your dreams come true."

Getting to graduation night is a struggle for many high school students — and some never make it. Minnesota has some of the worst graduation rates in the nation for students of color.

In 2009 at Kennedy, only about a third of Latino students graduated within four years. But a new principal, open discussions on race and data-driven teaching have helped turn Kennedy into a model for closing Minnesota's notorious graduation gap. Most recent figures show 91 percent of its Latino students are graduating on time.

Adolfo Saldana Lara speaks at his graduation
Adolfo Saldana-Lara addressed his fellow graduates Monday at the Kennedy Senior High School commencement in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Saldana-Lara, who was born in Mexico, said his high school journey got off to a rough start. The transition to ninth grade, becoming a teen and throwing himself into soccer left little time for his studies.

"I wasn't a superstar student," he said. "I could have been better — way better — if I would have just tried my ninth and 10th year. You're just trying to fit in, you just want to have friends. You want to be known as the kid who's done everything."

But problems at home made his path to a diploma even more complicated. His older brother became a teen father and moved out of the house at 17 to live with his girlfriend. Saldana-Lara sought guidance from his friends at the time — "kids on the corner" — and slipped in school even more. He failed a few classes sophomore year.

Saldana-Lara's brother also dropped out of high school, crushing their mom's hopes for her eldest son.

"Just seeing how hard it can get, I didn't want to do that," Saldana-Lara recalled.

"Education is a gift, placed in front of you, to make your dreams come true."

He cut off his friends and plunged into his studies. He also worked several jobs, from mowing lawns to food service, to help bring in paychecks for his family. Over time, he nudged up his GPA far enough make it to graduation and attend Normandale Community College this fall.

Staff members at Kennedy say the 18-year-old is engaging and connected. He also asks for help when he needs it, said Megan Willrett, dean of students. "I have no concerns about him being successful in his future," she said.

During senior year, one of Saldana-Lara's teachers seized on his love for writing. She encouraged him to try out for one of two spots to speak at commencement.

He gave it a shot.

"I wrote something," he said, "and I liked it."