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WENDOVER, Utah — High school graduation in Wendover, Utah, used to signal the time to buy a truck and go work in a casino.
"I have $27,000 in scholarships right now and I'm waiting on $6,000 more," said Wendover senior Vanessa Cuevas.
Her classmate Shaunnae Bateman adds, "I have about $11,000 in scholarships … I'm going to Dixie State and I will be studying accounting."
They represent the three dozen graduates at Wendover High who are pursuing secondary education in numbers never seen in this border town.
Last year, 83 percent of Wendover students graduated from high school and 9 percent had post-secondary plans in place, meaning some type of plan to continue their education.
This year, 97 percent of the seniors are graduating and 94 percent of them have post-secondary plans in place.
The turn-around isn't luck of the draw but the result of a coordinated effort.
"It took a lot of hours, a lot of math, a lot of mentoring and a lot of tutoring," said Yasmin Sandoval. She is a coordinator with Read, Graduate, Succeed, an AmeriCorps initiative that oversees tutors in dozens of Utah high schools.
Education hasn't necessarily been a first priority, work has been. We've really tried to work with students in a way where they understand the importance of being college and career ready.
They conducted home visits with parents to prepare families for college. The school devoted a daily class to college preparation and application. And counselors spent 50 hours working individually with students.
"Education hasn't necessarily been a first priority, work has been," said first-year principal Clint Spindler. "We've really tried to work with students in a way where they understand the importance of being college and career ready."
The new principal is a living example of this shifting priority. He's so dedicated, he sleeps on a cot at the school some nights, because his round-trip commute from his home in Tooele is 140 miles.
To celebrate their success, Chopper 5 landed at the school so KSL could publicly congratulate them in front of younger students in the community. Gov. Gary Herbert had sent a letter praising the school. City and school district leaders took part in the assembly that ended with confetti guns.
"There's a lot of work still to do," said Spindler, "but it's off to a good start, and the kids and I are having fun with it."
Seniors and school staff agree, it's been a long year to prepare kids for this moment. But as they walk with diplomas in hand later this month, they all say the sacrifice will have been worth it.
Spindler grew emotional at the prospect. "Yeah, it'll be worth it, a lot of great kids, I love every one of them," he said.
"I have planned to go to college, I just never knew how to get there until this year," said senior Jessica Cuevas. "So they really helped us."