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Elsy Cruz Parra will receive her diploma from Richfield High this week, becoming the first person in her family to graduate high school. And she's aiming higher with plans to study biology at Augsburg University.

Even she is surprised by how much she's accomplished in the last four years, including leadership roles on the student council, school board and in a Latino student group. She credits school staff for encouraging her.

"By my sophomore year, I suddenly had this confidence I didn't have before," Cruz Parra said.

Richfield school leaders say her boosted self-assurance exemplifies heightened efforts to push students toward their goals and graduation with individualized support. It's a tactic lauded by education leaders, including Education Commissioner Willie Jett, for the rebound in Minnesota's 2022 high school graduation rate after a dip during the pandemic. The increase was buoyed by gains made by Black and American Indian students and those who identify as two or more races — shrinking a stubborn racial gap in graduation rates.

Education leaders say pandemic relief funds provided new opportunities to offer targeted support to students who needed extra attention, both academically and emotionally.

"The money and attention on the topic created an opportunity for innovation in a way that wasn't necessarily there before," said Sarah Hunter, the director of strategic initiatives for Minneapolis Public Schools.

In Minneapolis, that has meant adding graduation coaches. The positions, added in 2021, work within departments designed to support various student groups, including Black, American Indian and multilingual students — all groups that saw gains in graduation rates in 2022.

"We're able to focus on each student's goals and values and support them on the journey there," said Dena Luna, the interim director of the district's Office of Black Student Achievement. "At the same time, it allows us to address the graduation rate gap."

Individual attention

Zander Tsadwa, the graduation coach in the Office of Black Student Achievement, guides Black high schoolers to make sure they are on track to graduate and have a plan for after they receive their diploma.

This year, he focused on sophomores and seniors and took several students on college tours. He continuously references the mission statement of his department: to have students "believe and achieve success as defined by their own values and dreams."

"I spend a lot of time on exposing them to options and really helping them envision a life after high school and then we map out that plan together," Tsadwa said.

Edison High school senior Aliyas Johnson is grateful Tsadwa has spent time with him to ensure he has all the necessary credits for a diploma and is prepared for his next goal: joining the National Guard.

"Some students don't ever get this privilege of having someone to talk about what they want to do with their life," said Johnson, who praised Tsadwa for being approachable. "If you know you've got someone you can go to and who won't judge you, everything will go better. [Tsadwa] helps keep me focused."

The addition of more counselors, social workers and mental health providers in Minneapolis schools, as well as improved credit recovery programs, have also helped boost graduation rates, Hunter said. And staff is also now required to complete training on graduation requirements.

"We really prioritized having more in-the-weeds folks who are able to connect with students in the event they're looking like they won't be credit ready at graduation," Hunter said.

Sally Reynolds, the director of the Career and College Success Division at the Minnesota Department of Education, said such efforts show real commitment from districts.

"The reality is if they were just pushing students through to graduate, there'd be no need to put in the extra work for these programs," she said.

Extra help, more ambition

Leaders at Richfield High are also focused on identifying students who need extra attention. But they have simultaneously encouraged all their high schoolers to aim higher by offering more advanced courses.

And the efforts are paying off. In 2022, 90% of Black students and 89% of Latino students graduated on time — up about 15 percentage points and more than 20 percentage points, respectively, from just three years ago.

District officials credit those gains in part to a spreadsheet — educators track students' progress, noting who's struggling and issuing weekly reports. That allows them to offer extra help, like tutoring or special workshops, right away.

Superintendent Steven Unowsky calls it "real-time credit recovery" and it builds on efforts from 2018 when district officials invited students to help them reinvent life at Richfield High. The teens said they wanted more rigorous course offerings and equitable access to advanced classes.

District officials doubled the number of advanced courses offered at Richfield High. They also began an ACT preparation program and mounted a campaign to encourage more students to take college courses before graduating.

Assistant Superintendent Latanya Daniels, who was then the principal at Richfield High, said students saw the adults were really listening to their ideas — and embraced the new offerings, setting new goals.

"We asked students directly what they needed from us. And we didn't just do that in a way that was transactional," she said. "We leveraged that information to transform our systems and how we do the work."