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The Dropouts

By Mayra Rodríguez Valladares

December 2002
Copyright © 2002 HISPANIC MAGAZINE. All rights reserved. 

The dialogue at left comes from Los Desertores (The Dropouts), a bilingual musical written by Puerto Rican playwright Radamés Gavé about Latino high-school students. Gavé wrote much more than a play about Latinos dropping out. The play is art imitating Latino student reality across the United States. It is a haunting refrain of the plight Hispanic students face in schools all across the country.

Many Hispanic children are not learning to read and write. Almost half do not graduate from high school or are below grade level. At best, the lack of education condemns people to a life of menial jobs and poverty. It can also sentence them to a life of welfare, unemployment, or crime.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education tell the story. Thirty-seven percent of Hispanics do not finish high school, compared to 15 percent of the national average. The percentage of Hispanic teens who drop out of high school is and has been higher than that of African Americans and Caucasians each and every year for the last three decades. Even among those Hispanics who remain in high school, 34 percent are below grade level.

People who deal with children and educational issues everyday–the true experts–agree: The status of education for Hispanics in this country is in a state of crisis!

It will get worse before it gets better. The U.S. Census Bureau expects the number of Hispanics to almost double from 35 million to 63 million by 2030. Hispanics will make up 25 percent of the kindergarten—12th grade population by 2025. The economic consequences of poorly educated students are staggering for the country as a whole. Education should be a national priority, more so for Hispanics who are lagging the national average.

The process of improving educational standards begins with Hispanic parents. Those who do not care must be taught the importance of a good education. Those who lack the resources must be empowered to address their children’s needs. Politicians must accept reality and provide the resources to address our community’s greatest need–the education of our children.

The lesson for Hispanic parents and the nation is clear. The modern economy requires a well-educated labor force. If children are not well educated, where will companies find their productive employees tomorrow?

The Hispanic Scholarship Fund, a non-profit organization, has the admirable goal of raising the percentage of Hispanics who have a college degree from 9 to 18 percent of all U.S. Hispanics. Not only is the Fund challenged to raise funds, it must also hope that students graduate from high school. The Fund, in conjunction with Rand, one of the most influential think tanks in the country, conducted a study that analyzed the economic impact of Hispanics’ lack of education.

The analysis found that if the nation were to invest one dollar toward having Hispanics receive a college degree, the return on investment would be 4:1. This means that the benefit of having college-educated Hispanics in higher-paying jobs available only to college graduates would represent higher taxes, contributions to social security, and disposable income that Hispanics would be able to plow back into the economy. According to Sara Martínez Tucker, president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, many of her funders come to her and say, "If only Hispanics valued education like Asians." She strongly disagrees: "We do, but [Hispanic] families also have other needs."

"The stories from Los Desertores are based on real lives," explains Manuel A. Morán, executive and artistic director of the Society of the Educational Arts ( He says that Los Desertores poignantly conveys the message: when kids drop out of high school, they are dropping out of mainstream society. The story is much the same throughout the country.

Usually, before students drop out, they start skipping classes, an obvious sign that they are at risk. Municipal Judge Ernest Aliseda, who hears truancy cases in the border town of McAllen, Texas, recites a litany of reasons why children skip classes and eventually drop out of school. He disguises the names of students who have come before him, but the cases are all too real. "María skipped class to go eat off campus. Juan did not do his homework in one or several classes and does not want to show up unprepared," he says. "Sergio has to work at night and often does not wake up in time for first period. Clara’s parents are fighting all the time and are getting a divorce. Pedro’s parents use drugs and so does he. He is too stoned to go to class, and they are too drugged to know if he goes to school."

Once students miss classes, they begin to fall behind. Falling behind leads them to miss more classes and soon they drop out. The results are disastrous. They are faced with a life of:

  • functional illiteracy;
  • significantly lower earnings ;
  • double the rate of unemployment than for graduates;
  • four times the likelihood of ending up on welfare than for high school graduates; and
  • being at higher risk of becoming a criminal. Fifty percent of state prison inmates are high-school dropouts.

Understanding the Causes

One cannot ignore economic reality. Almost 40 percent of Hispanic children are raised in families that are below the

poverty line, a rate twice as high as that of Caucasian children.

Language proficiency is also a problem. Many immigrants to the U.S. are illiterate in Spanish, which makes learning English a daunting task. The problem turns into a vicious cycle.

"Uneducated parents are not in a good position to know what the best education for their kids should be despite the fact that they want a good education for their children," says Mr. Ronald Blackburn-Moreno, president and CEO of ASPIRA Association, Inc, an organization dedicated to helping Hispanic students.

He adds that Latino children who enter school speaking only Spanish have the "double task of learning to speak and read English. Once students are in elementary, even in middle school, their inability to read causes them to drop out."

The problem starts before children enter formal education programs. Latino children are seldom placed in pre-school programs. Head Start covers only one-third of children eligible nationwide. "This is especially a problem in inner city and immigrant areas," says Blackbrun-Moreno. Less than 15 percent of all Hispanic American children participate in pre-school programs. Children who do not participate are already behind by the time they enter kindergarten. It is very difficult for them to ever catch up.

The fact that most Hispanic children are crammed into schools with few resources seals their fate. According to Charles García, chairman and CEO of My Sterling and a presidential appointee to the President’s Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, "there are low expectations by school personnel, ill-prepared teachers and administrators, limited coordination among schools, parents and communities on behalf of students, and tracking into non-academic fields." García also believes that "the active participation of parents in the education of their children is not facilitated, and the educational assessments, often in the form of tests in English, are incorrectly used to make decisions that negatively impact the student." It all conspires "to discriminate against Hispanic children!"

"With all these problems students are often bored, unhappy, and feel isolated in school," says García. "I will never forget when my little sister told me, ‘What is the point of going to school? It is a white man’s world anyway.’ Edgar’s song in Los Desertores brought back memories of her lament."

How do we even try to solve this enormous problem? The need to provide Hispanics with a better education needs serious national attention. Leslie Sánchez, executive director of the White House on Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Education believes that President Bush has focused on the problem.

The President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans has as its goal "to ensure progress is made in closing the academic achievement gap for Hispanic students. By raising expectations for Hispanic families and providing the tools needed to increase their educational attainment, we hope to achieve this goal."

Work at a grassroots level, however, is more critical. Domestic and foreign non-profit organizations have tackled the task of improving education amongst Hispanics. ASPIRA has literacy and other educational programs for immigrants, adults and children, and in Puerto Rico it also has pre-school programs.

The Mexican Cultural Institute of Houston has launched a Hispanic Literacy Task Force with a mission to improve the education provided to Hispanic students in Texas. According to program director José-Pablo Fernández, the task force is especially interested in "raising the educational levels, literacy, and second language skills" among Hispanics.

Some private-sector firms realize they cannot afford to ignore the educational plight of the fastest-growing segment of the national workforce. Procter & Gamble addresses the issue by distributing a U.S. Department of Education video titled Vamos Juntos a la Escuela that looks at four areas: parent involvement, readiness to learn, reading and mathematics, and preparing young children for college.

Spanish language television networks Univisión and Telemundo also help. They have conducted a broad-based television campaign of public service announcements titled Education Matters. All public service announcements displayed the U.S. Department of Education 800 number so that viewers could request Spanish language publications in the areas of reading, math, college access, and parent involvement. García also highlights the efforts of the Mott Foundation and the Macarthur Foundation, which have made extraordinary investments in after-school programs for Hispanic Americans.

Extremely important, programs must target parents concurrently with children. Fernández always tells parents: "Keep your children motivated to study and read to them starting at the earliest date possible. Parents are the key to the educational success of Hispanic children." Sánchez agrees: "Parents must demand that their school system provide the components of quality instruction, including qualified teachers who meet the demands of their state." Yet, often parents are so overwhelmed with one or two concurrent jobs, that they don’t have the time nor the knowledge to help their children. Children’s academic success depends on everybody. They are tomorrow. It is imperative to enter the fray to stop the haunting motif of Los Desertores.

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