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A deep dive into Minnesota's graduation gap: For these students, the challenge is real

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Students in class at John F. Kennedy High.
Students in class at Bloomington Kennedy High School on the first day of school, Sept. 1, 2015.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

People tend to think of Minnesota as a state that is tops in education. 

By a lot of measurements, that's true: We have a lot of great schools, high test scores and an educated workforce. But the fact is, we're just average when it comes to our graduation rate. And for our students of color, we have some of the lowest on-time graduation rates in the country. 

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

The implications are big, for the students — and for Minnesota. 

In early March, MPR News launched a series of stories focusing on Minnesota's graduation gap: How did we get here? And what are schools doing to address it?

Reporter Laura Yuen has been reporting from Bloomington's Kennedy High School, where most of the kids are low-income and students of color, since the beginning of the school year. Kennedy's graduation rate has climbed in the past few years, with some of the biggest gains coming from the school's black and Latino students. The school offers a window into what change looks like in Minnesota schools — along with some of excitement and tension that comes with it.

Over the next few months, Yuen will join host Tom Weber in taking a deep dive into some of the issues surrounding Minnesota's graduation gap, introducing along the way some of the students and teachers who are living it.

The students

Diamond Syas, 17
Diamond Syas, 17, at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington on Dec. 9, 2015.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Diamond Syas

Age: 17

Obstacles: Diamond's parents aren't in the picture, and she's been living in and out of homelessness. She says she has "grown-lady" responsibilities, such as finding housing and transportation. She also works three jobs at the mall.

On being a teen: "School and work, in two words. I've been supporting myself since I was 13. I've been house-hopping. It hasn't been a teenage life. Most people go to parties, they go to prom, they have a bunch of friends. I don't really have none of that because I've moved around so much. It's gotten to the point where now I'm a senior I'm so used to it; it doesn't affect me to have friends or not have them."

On graduation: "That's the only goal I have here right now: To finish high school."

What she dreams of: To be a computer engineer or graphic designer

Student advocate Rosa Flores and Mariana Camacho
Student advocate Rosa Flores and student Mariana Camacho Castillo, 18, at Kennedy High School in Bloomington. Flores works with students that are at risk of not graduating from high school.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Mariana Camacho Castillo

Age: 18

Obstacles: Mariana failed most of her classes during the ninth grade at a nearby high school. When it dawned on her that she was at risk of not graduating, she said it felt as though she was lost "in a dark circle." She later transferred to Kennedy, but still had some rough patches after her parents split up. Her mother also got sick and went back to her native Mexico for a while. Mariana also juggles school with work and babysitting her young nephew.

Her biggest cheerleader: Mariana formed a strong bond with a student advocate at the school, Rosa Flores, who checks in on her most days and helps her approach teachers if there's a problem. "Knowing you have one person caring for you in and out of school, it helps you a lot," Mariana said.

What she likes most about Kennedy: Mariana appreciates a strict environment that forced her to call home whenever she was late for class. "Kennedy takes their students, their attendance, and their grades very serious, which is so much better because they actually push you to graduate. They want to see you graduate."

What she dreams of: To go to college and own a business

Michael Boone, 18
Michael Boone, 18, at Bloomington's Kennedy High School, listens to student advocate Raheem Simmons during time in his advisory class on December 9, 2015.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Michael Boone

Age: 18

Obstacles: Michael has failed numerous classes, and now he's trying to make up for lost time. He also was not academically eligible to play football last year. "I'm not the greatest student. I have a low GPA, a low ACT score, but I'm trying to catch up to graduate."

Why he struggles: Michael says he's always had a hard time focusing on school and doing his work. "I just try to be a class clown. [The other kids are] laughing at me, at the jokes. You know we're cool. Next thing you know, they got an A, I got an F."

What would it be like if he doesn't get his diploma: "It would be embarrassing."

What he dreams of: Playing football in college

The school

Kathryn Haddad
Kathryn Haddad, a teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, greets one of her new classes on the first day of school on September 1, 2015.
Caroline Yang for MPR

Kennedy High School, Bloomington

English teacher Kathryn Haddad has seen Kennedy go through a lot of change. All in all, she said, she thinks the changes are for the better. Today at Kennedy, she said, there are so many more interventions for students than there were just 10 years ago.

"I think about that sometimes," she said. "Like, a third of a class would fail. I don't know what happened to those people. If some of them never graduated, when I think about that, I feel sad about that they were here at the wrong time." 

Haddad said students recognize that they have more chances to stay in school now, too. And the stakes of not graduating are too high. 

"A high school diploma is not that much of a ticket to a fantastic future," she said, "but without a high school diploma, it seems really bleak."

To hear the full discussion with reporter Laura Yuen, use the audio player above.