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Dropout Rate Higher For Hispanic Students

By Kelly Brewington and Leslie Postal | Sentinel Staff Writers

June 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

Monica Pineiro doesn't dream of being a pediatrician anymore.

She gave up that wish years ago when she dropped out of the 11th grade at Osceola High School.

Once she hit high school, Pineiro traded in her glasses and tomboy wardrobe for trendier clothes. She started hanging with the fast crowd and cutting class. After a while, she didn't see the point in going to school at all.

Pineiro, now 20,was the kind of student who makes educators and Hispanic advocates wince. Hispanic students like Pineiro drop out at a rate that remains three times that of whites and twice that of blacks, according to a new study from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Experts say the problem has serious long-term implications for the education system and Hispanic students, many of whom struggle to go back and earn high-school degrees.

Yet the report, which analyzes U.S. Census Bureau data between 1990 and 2000, shows some improvements. Overall, the dropout rate for Hispanic students nationwide decreased slightly in the 1990s from 21.7 percent to 21 percent and in Florida increased from 18.2 percent to 18.8 percent. The dropout rate for native-born Hispanics decreased from 15.2 percent to 14 percent nationwide and from 15.2 percentto 13.2 percent in Florida.

The study also points out that Hispanic teens comprised the fastest-growing 16- to 19-year-oldpopulation in the 1990s, increasing 56 percent.

But the dropoutproblem remains the worst among immigrant Hispanics, whose rate remained the same nationwide at 33.7 percent. In Florida, it increased from 19.9 percent to 26 percent.

The study separated figures for native-born and immigrant Hispanics to show the distinct challenges of each group.

"Educators need to distinguish between these two groups because they have different characteristics and will respond to different types of intervention," said Richard Fry, the report's author.

At Apopka High School, for instance, administrators focused the dropout-prevention efforts on the school's migrant population. The school is about 15 percent Hispanic, mostly of Mexican descent and the children of migrant workers.

"You have many students who migrate between here and Mexico," Principal John Edwards said. "They come here for a time, then leave, and you never see them again."

The school uses volunteers from the Farmworker Association of Florida and AmeriCorps to help Hispanic students stay on track, he said. The school also started a Second Language Student Achievement Committee, targeting Hispanic students.

"It's a challenge," Edwards said. "But it's where we need to spend a lot of energy."

Language remains the ultimate obstacle. Hispanic youth who don't speak English fluently are more likely to drop out. Nearly 40 percent of Hispanic high school dropouts do not speak English well, the Pew report stated.

Those who arrive as teenagers are at a particular disadvantage because they have little time to master English before they must tackle high-school classes and pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, required for graduation.

"You're at a disadvantage the less time you have in our school system," said Dalia Medina, coordinator of multicultural education for the Osceola County School District. "When they come into the high school, it's very difficult for them."

It typically takes four to seven years before non-native English speakers know the language well enough to succeed academically. Such students may get frustrated when they can't pass the FCAT, Medina said.

"Many just get a job, and they don't come back," she added.

Nearly a quarter of Osceola's public-school students still are learning English, and more than 80 percent of those children are Hispanic.

How well Hispanic immigrants do in Florida's public schools depends on their socioeconomic status and the quality of schooling they received in their native home, Medina said.

Students from middle-class or affluent families who attended quality schools and have a "great foundation in their native language" have the easiest time transitioning into a public school here. Children from impoverished families who attended poor-quality schools struggle the most -- and are most at risk for dropping out.

Even for nonimmigrant families, poverty and lower income status could be attributed to the dropout problem, said Marytza Sanz, whose social outreach organization Latino Leadership works as an advocate for Central Florida's burgeoning Hispanic population. She stressed the need for parental involvement.

"We have to fight this problem on a grass-roots level," she said. "You have some parents, the woman is working two jobs and the daddy is working three. We have to go to their communities. It's one thing to invite them to meetings, but we need to go to them."

Pineiro didn't struggle with English -- she was a year old when her family moved from Puerto Rico to New Jersey -- but she had many distractions coupled with a stubborn personality. Pineiro's father died when she was 10, after which she said she became increasingly rebellious and lost interest in school. Her mother was left to raise a family of five children on her own.

Today, Pineiro hopes to get a GED. It was only seven months after dropping out that she enrolled in school again because she knew she had made a mistake. But Pineiro got distracted and dropped out. Now she said she's more focused.

"I regret it," she said. "School is important, I know that."

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