By Kelly Schmidt, Content Manager at United Way of Salt Lake
When students graduate high school prepared for college and careers, they’re more likely to have better employment and earning potential.
That’s why United Way of Salt Lake works to promote educational opportunities for all students throughout their school career, as well as help break down barriers kids may face that keep them from receiving their high school diploma.
Cottonwood High School, a UWSL community school, has made significant progress toward making sure students, regardless of their ZIP code, race, or socioeconomic background, are on track to graduate and ready for whatever comes next for them. And as a result, graduation rates have risen significantly.
Over the last five years, Cottonwood High’s graduation rates for all students rose from 75% in 2014 to 80% in 2018, and 65% to 75% among English Language Learners in the same timeframe, or students whose first language isn’t English, according to Granite School District data.
At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, Cottonwood’s graduation rate also exceeded the district’s, despite being a school more heavily impacted by poverty than most other schools in the district.
Cottonwood High serves about 1,700 students, one-third of whom live in South Salt Lake. The school is a crossroads where diverse cultural economic communities meet, with a student body that speaks over 40 languages.
Twelve percent of students are refugees, 18 percent are English Language Learners, and nearly 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, which is an indicator that they come from a family living in poverty.
The diversity of Cottonwood also means there are many barriers that students face when working toward graduation and figuring out their next steps in life.
“We have many students who come from low-income backgrounds, or a refugee background, or they’re just new to the country, and they don’t realize how education is accessible to them, or what a difference it can make overall in their lifetime,” said Monica Candia, the guidance counselor at Cottonwood High.
Having partners like United Way if making a difference in helping these students envision their futures.
Supporting kids to graduation and beyond
School leaders attribute the improvement in graduation rates to many efforts. Cottonwood’s staff has focused on updating the graduation status of “late” graduates, as well as promoting summer credit recovery efforts — coordinated by UWSL — to help get seniors back on track to graduate.
Counselors and college advisors have also increased their efforts to identify students at risk of dropping out and direct them to the appropriate interventions to keep them in school.
FAFSA completion initiatives are also helping students work toward post-secondary opportunities. FAFSA is positively associated with college enrollment, and FAFSA completion rates can be leading indicators of postsecondary enrollment and success.
Data from school leaders suggest that the gains they saw were the result of intentional outreach and targeted FAFSA completion events hosted at school, which are coordinated by UWSL’s community school director and Utah college access advisors.
In addition to these supports, Candia said United Way also helps cover college application fees for students who are applying during Cottonwood’s annual College Application Week.
Having so many opportunities allows students to overcome the barriers that may have held them back in the past, Candia said.
“United Way helps many students get to graduation,” she said. “…United Way makes a huge difference.”
Learn more about the changes United Way of Salt Lake is making across the key indicators for High School graduation at uw.org/goals.