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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Hispanics Buck Trend In Dropouts

By Toni Marshall

November 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

Jorge Rosario and his younger sister Gina, new arrivals to Broward County from Puerto Rico several years ago, hit a hurdle in high school. It wasn't that they couldn't do the work or didn't want to, they said, it was just too difficult maneuvering in English, a foreign language to them.

"It was so hard, frustrating," said Gina Rosario, 16.

"In ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] classes they teach you in English, but I couldn't catch on fast enough. I was uncomfortable," Jorge Rosario said.

The family moved to South Florida from Bayamón, near San Juan, to give their father, Hector Rosario, a shot at earning more money, which he accomplished with a bookkeeping job. But his children's future began to cloud because of their trouble with English.

Gina got help from local support groups, and she expects to graduate from Miramar High this spring.

Jorge dropped out twice and returned to Puerto Rico to live with relatives and finish high school. He has since returned to Broward County, received help to study for his military service entrance exam and, at 19, is in the U.S. Navy.

The Rosarios, like students throughout Broward and Miami-Dade counties, are bucking a trend that has been noted nationwide: excessively high dropout rates for Hispanic students. The 2000 Census shows that 1.56 million youths, ages 16 to 19, are not in school and do not have diplomas.

Of that number, nearly 34 percent are Hispanic, up from 22 percent of the dropout pool counted in 1990. The dropout rate for other groups declined in the decade: Blacks went from 18 to 17 percent of the total, and whites declined from 58 to 44 percent. Asians remained near 1.8 percent.

Palm Beach County did slightly better than the country as a whole. Nearly a third of the teenagers in the "likely dropout" category were Hispanic.

In contrast, in Broward and in Miami-Dade counties, only 12 percent of the dropouts in that age group were Hispanic.

Margarita Zalamea, head of operations for Hispanic Unity, a Hollywood social services organization, credits a wealth of resources and programs that cater to the sizable Hispanic population in Broward and Miami-Dade for discouraging dropping out.

Census numbers show Hispanics make up 17 percent of Broward's population and 20 percent of its school enrollment and more than half of Miami-Dade's population and school children.

In contrast, Palm Beach County Hispanics are only 12 percent of the population.

Income levels are also a factor in the lower dropout rates in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Zalamea said. "Hispanics now living in Broward County tend to be more affluent -- middle class. Parents are educated and come from countries such as Venezuela and Colombia where they have attended private schools," she said. "In Palm Beach County there is a larger percentage of migrant workers than in Broward and Miami-Dade."

Experts blame the high nationwide dropout rate among Hispanic students in part on simple economics.

At Forest Hill High in West Palm Beach, 50 percent of students are Hispanic. Principal Mayra Stafford knows "a lot of them are the breadwinners in their families. They don't see the relevance in schools. They don't see the connection that staying in school will get them a higher paying job. They see the immediacy of going out and earning money, and many of them need it."

When your family can use your salary and you don't like school anyway, dropping out becomes a big temptation, Stafford said. "Here they are in this country, and it's a different culture. Everything around them is different. For many people, the first time they hear a foreign language, it sounds like a constant humming in the ear. It can be very daunting. And if you can't see a really good reason to be in this place, you're going to leave."

Stafford said she'd like to see career academies expanded at her school where students would get an education with a clearly practical bent. Forest Hill also offers a "Sunset Program" for students to make up failed classes at night.

Sheila Acevedo, manager of ESOL for alternative education in Palm Beach County, works with high-risk students. Many of her students float from school to school, and she sees her task as trying to keep them reading and learning. Acevedo has seen dropout rates among migrant students as high as 90 percent. The barriers to school attendance include mobility, illness and abuse, she said. Schools have made some headway with such strategies as handing out computers so students can work from remote sites and a book exchange.

Zalamea agrees language barriers, as the Rosarios found, can be a compelling reason to drop out of school, and she would like to see more done to help Spanish-speaking students succeed.

Although Jorge returned to Puerto Rico, he kept close ties with the Broward County chapter of ASPIRA, an organization that tutors and promotes self-esteem for Hispanic youths. When he graduated and returned to Broward, the organization helped him to study for his military service entrance exam. Gina was tutored through ASPIRA and met friends there who gave moral support as she went through school.

"Our mission is to develop leadership through education," said Syndia Nazario, director of ASPIRA Broward. ASPIRA runs programs in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties as well. Aspirar in Spanish means to aspire.

Nazario says she has seen many students struggle in school, partly because educators need more training to become more sensitive to other cultures. "[Students] do suffer in school," she said.

Natalie Felix, who dropped out of school twice but is now working toward her GED with ASPIRA in Broward, said teachers can discourage students. "They tell you that you'll never make it," she said.

Maria de L. Rodriguez, director of Broward Schools Diversity Department, says the district is on the cutting edge in the nation as far as diversity. Many teachers are ESOL certified and the district sponsors sensitivity workshops for them. The teachers partner with outside organizations to push literacy and stay-in-school programs, and language classes are equipped with computers to help students who know little English. The district's Web site is in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Creole.

The school and district staff attend workshops on how to integrate multicultural concepts into the general curricula. The Multicultural Department, for example, develops a yearly calendar and activity guide that includes various cultures and themes.

Hollywood Hills High principal Joyce Ferguson recognized more than five years ago that her Hispanic student population was growing, and nearly one-third of the students at her school now are Hispanic.

She began a program for bilingual students in 1996, and her staffers receive sensitivity training.

"I do have a lot of tutoring for them in school, and we offer programs to help kids who are low in reading," Ferguson said. "We do encourage all students, but my minority students know there is a place for them to go if they need it."

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