A Latino/a Teen In Dire Need of an Education:
One in a Million
by Manuel Hernández
Last month, my cousins daughter was on the verge of dropping
out of high school. Alma called me up and asked that I talk
to my precious teen cousin. Gloria was thinking of quitting
school just seven months before her 2004 high school graduation.
My cousin Alma and I grew up together in East Los Angeles
in the late 1960s. She married Felipe, a recently arrived
Puerto Rican and moved to The Island of Puerto Rico in 1984.
Months after Gloria was born, they moved to New York City
looking for better job opportunities and a better way of life.
Years later, Gloria had turned into a lavishing hazel-eyed
Latina brunette. She had already eloped for a weekend once
before with her American boyfriend, Steve, and Angela feared
the worst. Gloria worked at night at a local fast-food restaurant
to help the family, and she often did not wake up in time
for her first period class. Falling behind lead her to miss
more classes. Her mother was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Her relationship with Felipe was disastrous, and Gloria witnessed
the daily shouting and verbal outbreaks between her parents.
While cruising on the # 6 train to the Spanish Harlem Projects,
I reflected on my young cousins situation. She was not alone
in her dilemma. This was not the first time Gloria and I spoke
about her problems in school. As the English teacher in the
family, I was often called upon to share my words of wisdom
with my young cousin.
I had just published a textbook to improve educational outcomes,
and to provide the preparation and encouragement needed for
Latino students to enter, and succeed in college. It was to
serve as a bridge to American and British classics and further
literary analysis. The textbook was designed with specific
strategies and skills to prepare these students for city,
national and state high school exams. The featured writers
were of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican origin.
The textbook included exercises, questions and reading and
writing activities that were appropriate for Latino students
and other students as well. Activities that invited students
to use research and technology were also incorporated in the
I wanted my textbook to help Gloria and teens like her, but
it had just been published in December of 2003. I was very
enthusiastic about the books possibilities, but Gloria was
a bit too late to benefit from it. She was at risk of earning
lower earnings and working in menial jobs. Besides, her beauty
could turn her into a target for potential predators in all
walks of life.
What are the possible causes of Glorias situation? She was
one in a million and in dire need of an education.
About 40 percent of the Latino children in the United States
are below the poverty level. Less financial resources mean
fewer opportunities for quality education. Just like Gloria,
children from low-income families are always more expensive
to educate as they do not always show up at school ready to
learn. Poor children more often than not attend under-funded
schools. The Education Trust released a report in August 2002
documenting large funding gaps between high- and low-poverty
and -minority districts in many states. The report reveals
that in 31 of 47 states they studied, districts enrolling
the highest of minority students receive substantially fewer
(i.e. a difference of $100 or more per student) state and
local education dollars per student than districts enrolling
the lowest percentages of minority students. The same gap
occurred in 30 of the 47 states studied for districts educating
the greatest number of poor students. These gaps have real
and troublesome consequences for the quality of education
low-income and minority children receive. Students coming
from below poverty line incomes have fewer opportunities to
receive extra-curricular support for standardized testing
preparation and tutoring. As a consequence, many Latino teens
find themselves working a part-time and even a full-time job
during their high school years to help sustain their meager
Second, teenage pregnancy rate is extremely high making the
next generation of Latino teens more likely to have less parental
support. Latinos accounted for 31 percent of total births
fewer than 15 years of age in the year 2000; and 27.6 percent
of the total births from mothers between 15 and 19 years of
Third, language proficiency is a problem. Many Latino immigrants
enter the U.S. having limited proficiency in Spanish and as
a result the teaching of English becomes a monumental task.
With the dismantling of English as a Second Language and High
School Bilingual Programs, Latinos have fewer opportunities
to make a transition to mainstream academic courses. In many
instances, recently arrived foreign-born Latinos find themselves
sinking or swimming in the classroom.
Fourth, Research on class size reveals that while reductions
by just a few students (for example from 27 to 24 students)
may not result in dramatic differences in student achievement,
when class size is reduced to 15 to 20 students, they achieved
academically on par with and often better than those in larger
schools; have stronger academic and general self-esteem; lower
drop-out rates and higher attendance and graduation rates.
Hispanic students benefit even more than students in general
in smaller schools. The California Department of Education,
2003, revealed that nearly 1,000 school sites are critically
overcrowded, with student population densities in excess of
200 percent and sometimes 300 percent according to the California
Department of Education guidelines.
Fifth, the highest high school dropout rate amongst minorities
is preventing Latinos to attain a higher education degree.
As a matter of fact, although Latinos are a stunning 13% of
the total US population, they represent 6% in graduate programs.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 14 percent of U.S. born
Hispanic students and 44 percent of Foreign born Hispanic
students drop out of high school. According to the U.S. Department
of Labor, a college graduate will earn more over a lifetime
period than a high school graduate. However, in the traditional
age group, only 25 percent of foreign-born Latinos who graduated
from high school are enrolled in an undergraduate institution.
If Latinos are less likely to graduate from high school but
continue to grow in population, the United States has an economic
situation that needs serious attention.
Sixth, Latino teens are scoring poorly in city, state and
national testing requirements. Teens have difficulties reacting
and responding to literature that is far away from their immigrant
experience. There is no bridge to facilitate the literary
analysis of the classics. The literary text possesses no fixed
and final meaning or value; there is no one "correct"
meaning. According to Louise Rosenblatt, a poem is "what
the reader lives through under the guidance of the text."
If Latino teens cannot make a connection with the text, there
will be little possibility of an interpretation. As a consequence,
the possibilities of better scores in these exams are reduced
to a minimum.
Last, the voucher issue is still an enigma in educational
circles. It is an attempt to facilitate the education of Latino
children and rescue them from failing school systems; especially
those in inner-city neighborhoods are school voucher programs.
The program proposed in states across the United States of
America would distribute vouchers to parents, usually in inner-city
school districts. Parents could then use the vouchers to pay
for the cost of tuition at private schools of their choice.
The program is innovative but has fueled fierce debate and
animosity within educational circles in America.
These were just some of the causes. But who could help precious
Gloria now? How can Latino teens compete in a new found world
with higher academic standards? How can they be part of a
society when they feel a lack of personal involvement in the
classroom? How will we as leaders of our children see it that
they receive a better education? Looking within will help
us to see ourselves in a mirror to assess, reflect and implement
the strategies and initiatives necessary to transform. We
are all tired of the statistics; they are a reality, but the
truth is in our minds and hearts.
The Government is doing its best to give us the key for the
education of our children, but we must embark on a journey
to envision ourselves with the tools, strategies, initiatives
and courage to open the door for our present and up and coming