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Orlando Sentinel

Hispanic Council Gets No Respect

Myriam Marquez

October 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

The abysmal dropout rate for Hispanic students makes me cringe. Then I get angry.

I cringe because to point to the kids who don't make it generates an unfair stereotype. It ignores the thousands of Hispanic students who are moving on up in Central Florida, going to college or technical schools and pursuing the American dream with gusto and verve.

Yet we can't in good conscience ignore that Hispanics, as a group, are failing today at a higher rate than other students. Why is that?

The language barrier may be the problem. Or a high poverty rate. Or too many homes headed by single moms working two jobs. Or apathetic parents. Or parents who can barely read or write. Or mounting frustration by students shuffled around in a game of social promotion that leaves kids unable to keep up so they drop out. Maybe all of the above.

But we really don't know because neither the state nor local school systems seem to want to know. If they did, they would track the failures -- white, black, brown, whatever -- and find out why kids are giving up.

In this age of high-tech know-how, school administrators don't seem to have a clue why kids drop out. That makes me angry because many of those students, given a chance, could make it.

Orange County has the most Hispanic students in Central Florida. And the growth in the number of kids who are learning English -- a majority of them Puerto Ricans or other Latinos -- is disproportionately higher than the growth in the student body in general. Last year, for instance, there were 6,252 students who had limited English proficiency -- a 41 percent increase from 1995. By contrast, the district's total student enrollment rose by 23 percent. And that disparity is similar in Osceola County, too.

So what are school systems doing to help those students learn English?

The Orange County Superintendent's Hispanic Council should be pushing for vast changes, but it hasn't managed much of anything in the past five years because it simply gets no respect. Superintendent Ron Blocker inherited the council from two previous superintendents. And all of them have seemed more interested in having the council act as a public-relations tool for the school system than a true problem-solver.

To me it's simple. The council needs political clout and that means buy-in from the School Board. Each and every School Board member has Hispanic students in his or her district, but only Linda Sutherland, whose district includes Colonial High School, has devoted time to the council's work.

Unlike other advisory boards in city and county governments, the Hispanic Council does not advise the elected School Board. That's odd because one-fourth of the system's children are Hispanic, and those children and their families have no ethnic representation on that elected board. Instead, the council answers to an appointed superintendent who's a nice guy but not known for innovative ideas or a "do it now" attitude.

Blocker's a go-slow leader who grew up in the system and works by consensus. It's good he seeks people's input. But at some point he needs to step out and lead. More than a year on the job, we're still waiting for him to be bold.

Having each School Board member appoint a Hispanic parent, business person or civic leader to the superintendent's advisory council would help make Blocker more accountable. He could appoint an equal number of people to the council, including teachers and administrators who know firsthand the school district's strengths and shortcomings. The terms should be staggered to bring fresh blood and creative ideas to the table.

Most of all, the council can't advise in a vacuum. Members should know where the kids who dropped out the past five years came from. Did they arrive from somewhere else or from middle schools here that continue to churn out poorly prepared students? Are the kids dropping out because they need dual-language immersion programs or a newcomer's school -- both successful models in other large districts in the nation? Or do the students simply lack motivation because somewhere along the way people gave up on them?

And why has the system been so slow to promote qualified teachers into administrative ranks and too quick to dismiss Hispanic administrators who make a mistake when Blocker has been willing to keep other dead-wood administrators who happen not to be Hispanic?

What gives?

What about the successes? Which dropout prevention programs already are showing worthwhile student improvement? Would smaller classes, required summer school, after-school tutoring, weekly mentoring sessions help those kids?

What can educators learn by tackling the Hispanic dropout rate that would help students of any race or ethnicity?

School Board Chairman Susan Arkin and her colleagues don't have to wait for the superintendent to decide if and when he'll answer those questions.

Leaders would demand action.

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