Communities use mentoring, after-school programs to narrow the gap

Javier Salazar had three years of college – two for English as a second language and one in Kirkwood Community College’s paralegal program – under his belt when he dropped out.

“I had to work,” the 24-year-old native Honduran living in Cedar Rapids said in broken English. “I used to travel a lot, so I spent all my money traveling. Also I get married and I have a child now.”

Javier Salazar

He wants return to college, for which he has paid in full to date. But as is the case with anyone seeking a degree, school is expensive, especially when raising a family.

“The thing is, I’m afraid of owing money,” Salazar said.

Choices like that are among the reasons a gap between white Iowans earning college degrees – and high school degrees as well – and Latino and black Iowans earning them is not shrinking the past 50 years.

Stories like Salazar’s provide examples. Census data collected from 1960 through 2010 provide the numbers.

Only 10 percent of Latino Iowans graduated college in 2010 compared to 16 percent of black and 25 percent of white Iowans. All those rates are below the national averages of 13 percent for Latinos, 18 percent for blacks and 31 percent for whites.

Moreover, college graduation rates for Latino Iowans are dropping. They peaked in 1970 at 23 percent and have fallen in every census since then, except for a slight increase to 14 percent in 1990.


Perhaps more alarming because how important a high school diploma is, a gap in high school graduation rates for white, black and Latino Iowans continues to persist. In 2010, the white high school graduation rate was 92 percent and the rate for blacks was 83 percent. But the rate for Iowa’s Latinos was only 53 percent, the census data show.

White high school graduation rates have risen much more quickly than those of African Americans, but at least each have been growing since 1960. The Latino rate, meanwhile, peaked in 1990 at 64 percent and has been in decline since.

Latinos in Iowa also fell 9 percentage points behind the national Latino high school graduation rate of 62 percent in 2010, when the rates for white and black Iowans was slightly higher than the national rate.

The reasons vary, Iowans interviewed for a special project, Iowa’s Opportunity Gap, said in interviews. They include personal decisions to earn a wage instead of completing or continuing education and little or no parental interest in a child’s education.

When it comes to college, many students simply are not qualified – one of the obvious byproducts of those low high school graduation rates, the project by the nonprofit news organization, IowaWatch, and four Iowa newspapers revealed.

“Going to school and getting an education has to be a common goal in the household,” said Linda Robinson, sponsor of the Minority Scholars program at Burlington High School, a student group for college-bound minority students.

IowaWatch examined racial achievement inequality in the state in collaboration with The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, The Hawk Eye in Burlington, the Fort Dodge Messenger and the West Liberty Index. The journalists used census data from 1960 through 2010 collected and provided by the Colorado-based nonprofit journalism organization, I-News.

logo iowa's opportunity gap_Featured
Credit: Jaime Vargas/IowaWatch


Marshalltown Police Chief Michael Tupper said economic differences between whites and Latinos sometimes prevents Latino parents from having time to focus on their children’s education.

“I’m very fortunate I have a good job and I don’t have to work 15, 16 hours a day. So I can spend time with my children and make sure that they’re getting all those educational opportunities that they need to be successful,” Tupper said.

Joan Jaimes, an outreach counselor for Marshalltown Community College and secretary of the U.S. Council on Latino Affairs, said many young Latinos are eager to help their family financially. It’s a cultural thing, and it leads them to drop out of school to seek a job.

That needs to change, Jaimes said. “Don’t make the children feel that it is their responsibility in any way to help the parents financially,” she said.

West Liberty City Councilman Jose Zacarias said Latinos need to save for their education, rather than spend immediately money they earn.

“Let’s save that money and go send the kid to college,” he said. “Why college? Well, because it will make it a lot easier for the next generation.”

Javier Salazar moved to the United States and Cedar Rapids five years ago, like countless other immigrants to seek a better life that included a chance for a good education. He likes the law and said he thinks he would be a lawyer in Honduras by now because his education there would be cheaper than in the United States.

Yet, he prefers living in Iowa, he said.

“The living over here is more easier,” Salazar said. “Over there it’s too dangerous. Over here, it’s more calmed down. You can walk in the street.”

Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Honduras has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world, according to the U.S. State Department.

Salazar said being Latino has not held him back. Iowans have been nice to him, he said. He works in a warehouse packaging items, making enough money for a living and does not receive food or housing assistance from the government, he said.

“I had an idea it would cost money,” he said about college, “but not that much.”


For the last 15 years, the West Liberty School District has had a dual language program. About half of the district’s students are in it. The goal is to increase mastery of both English and Spanish in this bilingual district, where more than one-half of West Liberty’s residents are Latinos.

From kindergarten through fifth grade students in the program are taught in English half of the time and in Spanish the other half. This decreases to 30 percent Spanish in sixth, seventh and eighth grade as students study Spanish history, culture and geography in exploratory classes. In high school, students take advanced Spanish language classes with core subjects.

Dual Language Classes Showing SuccessesWest Liberty schools Superintendent Steve Hanson talks with reporter Stephen Gruber-Miller about his district’s dual language program. Read a transcript of the interview here.

The first dual language program class to go from kindergarten through graduation was the class of 2011. “I don’t know if it’s the dual language program that has done it, but this district does have a good graduation rate for our Latino population,” West Liberty Superintendent Steve Hanson said.

“For the class of 2011, our Latino graduation rate exceeded our white graduation rate. We were: 86 percent graduation rate for Latinos and 85, something like that, for whites,” Hanson said.

“A good percentage of our students are going on to some kind of post-secondary preparation whether it’s a two-year certificate at a community college or four-year study,” he said.


Linda Robinson has been working with young people in Burlington since 2009, building relationships with hundreds of students and their families. Last year, she took Minority Scholars students on a college trip to the University of Northern Iowa.

Keith Davis, 17, and Orlando Johnson, 18, both seniors at Burlington High School, help mentor younger students at the school Tuesday Sept. 10, 2013 in Burlington, Iowa. They volunteer in the Iowa Disparity Project.
Credit: John Gaines/The Hawk Eye

Keith Davis, a Burlington High School senior, said he also gets encouragement at home, which is a big help that people running programs like Robinson’s said does not always exist.

“My mom is always getting on me about keeping my grades up and working harder and staying on task instead of being distracted with other things,” Davis said. “My mom is really the main one who is keeping me where I’m supposed to be.”

While lax parental involvement has the expected negative impact on education Virgil Gooding, a therapist at Keys to Awareness in Cedar Rapids and a member of that city’s African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee, points to another impediment.

Black teenagers, he said, are disproportionately expelled or suspended from school. Cultural biases come into play.

“When there’s an issue regarding a black kid at school and regarding a white kid at school, in a disproportionate number of times the white kid’s mother or parents get called and the police get called for the black person,” Gooding said.

Third graders Jaylynne McDonald, left, Amber Castor and Ayanna Foy work with Belia Hollingsworth during the AFES after-school program. The kids spend the first 30 minutes working on homework or other projects, then have some STEM training followed by extracurriculars/free time.
Credit: Joe Sutter/Fort Dodge Messenger

Programs like Minority Scholars, such as the Calvary Family Center and Athletes for Education and Success in Fort Dodge and Sanford Community Center in Sioux City, are community based.

The Calvary Family Center was founded in 2004 and houses a math and reading tutoring program run by volunteers on Saturdays. Leaders there looked at Iowa Test of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITBS and ITED) reading scores for 2004 in the Fort Dodge school district and saw a problem that needed to be solved.

The district’s fourth grade black students had a reading proficiency level of 53.1 percent, far below the 72.1 percent for all students. In eighth grade, the rates were 47.3 percent for black students and 65.7 percent for all students. The results continued to worsen in 11th grade, where reading proficiency for the Fort Dodge district’s black students was 43.6 percent, while the rate was 72.1 for all students.

Sharla Coleson, the Calvary Family Center’s director, said teachers in schools don’t have time to do individual teaching. Add to that the nagging lack of parental encouragement at home and students fall behind, she said.

“Plus there are kids that do struggle with it,” Coleson said. “They need a little extra attention. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting them to focus, or teaching them different strategies.”

Skyler Weilenman, a fourth-grader from Fort Dodge, shows a drawing to Charles Clayton during the AFES after-school program. The program reaches out to students of all races and economic backgrounds to help keep them engaged in their schoolwork.
Credit: Joe Sutter/Fort Dodge Messenger

Coleson said she has no hard statistics to show whether or not the center’s programs are working but she hears anecdotes. “The parents will tell us that the kids read more than they used to, or enjoy coming to the program. They seem more interested in reading,” she said.

“The teachers will tell you they see an improvement, and they can tell they (students) are doing something extra.”

The Sanford Community Center in Sioux City has tackled another major roadblock in its effort to emphasize education among minorities. In 1993 it started a gang outreach program.

“Schools were having difficulty with gang violence and disruptions in the classrooms,” George Boykin, the center’s executive director, said.

Boykin’s center works with students in grades kindergarten through sixth, offering after-school programs and summer school. A major component for his program is continuing some kind of education for students who get suspended from school.

“If those youngsters are suspended, we will continue their education so that when that youngster goes back to school, he or she is right up to speed with the other classmates,” Boykin said. “And it is helpful to parents and families that have to go to work during the day, so that they can be sure their youngster isn’t out on the street or home alone.”

Boykin said his center works with more than 2,000 students and parents, keeping tabs on students who stay in the Sioux City school district through high school. “We have experienced tremendous success in getting them through school and keeping them out of law enforcement areas,” he said.


Lena Avila Robison, president of the statewide ethnic and cultural advocacy group, Latinos Unidos of Iowa, said responsibilities such as a career and caring for children can prevent minorities from finishing school.

Add to that the census data that show the median family income for whites in Iowa during the 2010 census was $62,423 compared to $26,760 for blacks and $38,030 for Latinos.

“In the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘I know I will go back to school. I know I will,’ that type of thing,” Robison said. “And some people do go back. And some people don’t because that avenue isn’t available for them anymore.”

Marshalltown Community College’s Jaimes said accessible adult education programs help. Her college has an Adult Education and Training Center in downtown Marshalltown, where people are taught GED classes.

In Burlington, Linda Robinson said she wants to do whatever she can in Minority Scholars to get students to graduate. But, she also said students have to help themselves.

“I’m not sure if some kids understand the importance of a high school diploma,” Robinson said. “It’s a mind set these kids have to understand because having an education is really important.”

Orlando Johnson, a Burlington High School senior, said he is considering going to UNI to pursue a degree in theater and acting because of the trip Robinson took with her students to Cedar Falls.

Johnson said he wants to study theater and acting, and that he has special motivation to graduate eventually from college.

“Since no one else in my family went to college, that gives me more motivation to set the example for my younger brother, nieces and nephews,” Johnson said. “I’d be the first person in my family to graduate from college.”

Lauren Mills of IowaWatch contributed to this story.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch


Blacks, Latinos Falling Behind When It Comes to Opportunities in Iowa

Black and Latino Rising Poverty Rates, Dropping Median Pay Are Strongly Linked

Moves in Iowa Aimed at Reducing Black Imprisonment Rate

Blacks, Latinos Struggle To Raise Home Ownership Rates in Iowa

Commentary: Iowa Needs Problem Solvers To Narrow Opportunity Gaps

I-News analysis by Burt Hubbard. Read the I-News special report on Colorado that produced the data IowaWatch used for this story: Losing Ground: An I-News Special Project

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. For more I-News stories, please go to

I-News and IowaWatch are members of the Investigative News Network, which includes more than 80 nonprofit news organizations.

Type of work:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *