Minnesota's graduation gap: By the numbers

On-time graduation: How Minnesota ranks
Minnesota's overall on-time graduation rates for students of color, across racial lines, puts it directly at the bottom of all 50 states.
MPR News Graphic: William Lager | Source: U.S. Dept. of Education

Full coverage: How did we get here? What's at stake? And what will it take to find a solution?

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Minnesota's failure to graduate its high school students of color is among the worst in the nation. Students who are Native American, black, Hispanic or Asian-American are less likely to graduate on time than their counterparts in nearly every other state in the country.

Many achievement gaps that exist in the state — on middle-grade math tests, for instance — can be explained by white students performing near the top of the national scales and students of color toward the middle. But that's not the case with graduation rates.

The percentage of Minnesota's Hispanic students who completed high school in four years was the absolute lowest in the United States in 2014, the most recent school year for which there are national statistics. The rates for Native American, Asian-American and black students also hover near the bottom.

Graduation rates for Minnesota's Hispanic students
Graduation rates for Hispanic students in Minnesota and across the United States, 2014
MPR News graphic | Source: U.S. Department of Education

Education officials in Minnesota often balk at any state-by-state comparisons. They explain the racial graduation gap in Minnesota in part by pointing to the state's rigorous course standards and credit requirements, aimed at college readiness, that make the diploma more valuable than in other states.

But in this relatively challenging academic environment, where is the support for students who need the most help?

It's in another of those state-by-state comparison where Minnesota also falls to the bottom of the list: Spending on student support services. Minnesota spends a smaller share of its education dollars on student support like school counselors, social workers and attendance trackers than any other state in the nation — and it's been that way for at least a decade.

Percentage of education money spent on support
Percentage of education money spent on support services for the U.S. and Minnesota from 1993 until 2013
MPR News graphic | U.S. Census Bureau

Education experts agree that schools should be challenging, but emphasize that they should also provide high levels of support for students in danger of falling through the cracks. Schools need staff and systems aimed at identifying students who are off track to graduate, they say.

743 students per school counselor
MPR News Graphic | Source: MN Dept. of Education

The biggest predictors that a student won't finish on time? They're as basic as A-B-C: Attendance, behavior and course failure.

For many Minnesota schools, the resources to track those three predictors — and follow up on them — just aren't available. Guidance counselors, for instance, are in short supply across the state:Minnesota schools employ just one counselor for every 743 students. Unlike other states, Minnesota has no set requirement for a counselor-to-student ratio, and the state ranks third from the bottom nationally.

Is it any surprise, then, that students of color have trouble thriving in Minnesota?

Take Jasmine Lazo, an 18-year-old who dropped out of high school during her junior year. Her first signs of trouble came in the ninth grade, regarded by education experts as the make-or-break year for students. Lazo started ditching school. She failed freshman English and fell behind. She didn't ask for help from guidance counselors. Family problems compounded her academic performance, and then she quit school altogether.

Jasmine Lazo, 18, in class in St. Paul.
Jasmine Lazo, 18, studies at the Hubbs Center in St. Paul. | Jasmine's story
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis has seized upon the importance of freshman year. Incoming students who are identified as being at risk of dropping out, based on their middle school performance, are given more focused attention. The high school has dramatically turned around its graduation rates over the past several years.

Patrick Henry High School graduation rates
Patrick Henry High School's overall, on-time graduation rates, 2011-2015
MPR News graphic | Source: Minnesota Department of Education/Minnesota Report Card

At Kennedy High School in Bloomington, where most of the students are low-income and racial minorities, administrators are trying to redesign the system to make it much more difficult for kids to fail. The school's philosophy is a simple concept: Identify struggling students early on, and match them with the support they need.

Kennedy High School enrollment, 2015-16
Bloomington Kennedy High School enrollment, by race, for the 2015-2016 school year
MPR News graphic | Source: Minnesota Department of Education/Minnesota Report Card

This approach has involved hiring more support staff, getting kids to class on time, meeting weekly to discuss struggling students and possible interventions and giving students more chances to make up homework and retake tests. The effort appears to be working. The school's overall graduation rate has climbed over the past decade.

Bloomington Kennedy High School graduation rates
Graduation rates of Bloomington's Kennedy High School, 2011-2015
MPR News graphic | Source: Minnesota Department of Education/Minnesota Report Card

These schools provide just two examples of success — but they're only two.

Minnesota is becoming more diverse by the year, so the state now has a growing economic problem because of the graduation shortcomings for students of color.

"We're running out of workers," said former Minneapolis mayor (and now education advocate) R.T. Rybak. "And unless we solve this thing, our economy is going to grind to a halt."

Minnesota demographics, 1960-2030
As Minnesota's population grows, so does its diversity. By 2030, demographers project, almost a quarter of the state's population will be nonwhite.
MPR News graphic | Source: Minnesota Demographic Center

MPR News staffers Laura Yuen, Brandt Williams, Tim Pugmire, Bill Wareham, Laura McCallum, Will Lager and Meg Martin contributed to this report.