TORCH's success shows what works. But can it continue?
The latest American K-12 school demographic statistics are in, and they contain a milestone: One out of every four children enrolled in the nation's K-12 public schools is Latino, a record high, the Pew Hispanic Center recently reported.
The same report brings the good news that more Latino youth are graduating from high school and pursuing postsecondary study. It found 76.3 percent of U.S. Hispanics ages 18 to 24 had a high school diploma or its equivalent in 2011, up from 72.8 percent just one year earlier.
It behooves Minnesota to join in this positive trend. Unfortunately, the latest accounting by the National Center for Education Statistics shows a persistent high school graduation gap that parallels the state's notoriously wide achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. In 2008-09, the most recent years with data available, Minnesota Latino ninth- to 12th-graders were more likely to drop out before graduation than students of any other ethnic group save for American Indians. They were more than four times more likely to exit without graduating than white students, the center reported.
Those are worrisome numbers for Minnesota, given the growth forecast for the state's Latino population. The State Demographic Center forecasts that by 2015, Latinos will constitute the largest non-white Minnesota subgroup. They are already the fastest-growing segment of the population.
But academic trend lines aren't moving in the wrong direction everywhere. Take Northfield, for example. The graduation rate for Latino students at Northfield High School climbed from 36 percent in 2004 to 100 percent this year, thanks to a few passionate visionaries, concerted community effort and a little help from taxpayers.
The home of two premier liberal-arts colleges, Northfield has long prided itself on its high-quality public schools. The low graduation rate a decade ago among the small but growing share of Latino students at Northfield High was met with alarm. TORCH (Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes) was born in a conversation of concerned parents and educators around someone's coffee table.
Beth Berry, a TORCH founder and coordinator of its high school program, credits the effort's homegrown design for its success.
It begins mentoring and tutoring students one on one in sixth grade, and offers a summer program for younger children. Each student is served individually. High school students meet with Carleton and St. Olaf college students and take college-credit courses with their help. More than 75 local volunteers supplement a small staff that includes several workers funded by the federal AmeriCorps program.
TORCH stays with those students not only through high school but also during their college years, offering advice, academic coaching and, for some, financial aid to see them through to a two-year or four-year degree.
In 2008, TORCH expanded its target population to include any student from a traditionally under-served population.
The result has been impressive: Last year all 23 TORCH high school seniors graduated. Many of them had already earned some college credits and college-going skills. This year TORCH is serving 332 students, including 165 college students -- some now preparing for graduate school.
Yet for all its success and local support, TORCH is fragile. It started with a $40,000 grant from the state Office of Higher Education and still receives $48,000 a year from that source. "I don't know where we'd be without it," Berry said. She's nearing retirement and has been willing to work at a starting teacher's salary. Recruiting her successor will be a challenge.
TORCH illuminates the larger challenge facing Minnesota. It demonstrates that it's possible for this state to keep its brainpower edge as its population changes -- but only if Minnesotans individually and collectively make that task a priority and fund it accordingly. TORCH should be a model for other Minnesota communities. It needs to keep shining.
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