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Hispanic Link News Service

Education Remains Most Pressing Issue For Hispanics


September 1, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Hispanic Link News Service. All Rights Reserved.

The Census Bureau places the number of U.S. Latinos at 32 million and growing fast. That is not counting nearly 4 million residents of Puerto Rico. On average, the bureau reports, Latinos are about nine years younger than the rest of the population.

Small wonder that education is Issue No. 1 in the community. Early childhood education, access to technology, barriers to higher education, high dropout and low achievement levels -- all are critical and all receive passionate attention when Hispanic educators get together, as they did this summer at a White House summit.

Latino children under age 5 constitute more than 15 percent of the U.S. population of that age group, but they are much less likely to be enrolled than other groups in early education programs. About 45 percent of white students and 50 percent of African American students are enrolled in preschool programs, compared to 26 percent of Latino students. Programs such as Head Start, designed to benefit poor children, still fail for the most part to reach the 36 percent of Latino children who are living below the poverty line.

``We have to do something in Head Start to make sure more Latinos are being served,'' says Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. ``We have to get our children into these programs earlier.''

In terms of elementary education, Latino student enrollment in public schools rose by 157 percent from 1978 to 1998. Enrollment for African American students rose 20 percent; for whites, 10 percent. Almost half of the Latino students -- compared to only 10 percent of whites -- are enrolled in urban schools, leading to a growing trend of resegregation.

Latinos account for 13 percent of all students in grades nine through 12, but more than a third of them don't graduate. That attrition rate contrasts to 19 percent of African American students and 10 percent of whites. Only 35 percent of Latino high school students are tracked into college preparatory or academic programs, compared to 50 percent of whites and 43 percent of African Americans.

Overall, while Latino students make up about 15 percent of all public school students; yet only 4 percent of the teachers who instruct them are Latino.

A key factor contributing to educational success is access to technology. As of 1997, only 68 percent of Latinos used computers at school, 18 percent at home. Eighty-four percent of white children used computers at school and 53 percent did so at home.

Alfred Ramírez, president of the National Community for Latino Leadership, a think tank for training and development of emerging and established leaders, calls lifelong educational preparation crucial for Latino students.

``Countless times Latinos are tracked at an early age into programs and come out of the educational pipeline at the high school level without having received courses that make for successful college students,'' he says.

From 1976 to 1996, the number of Latinos pursuing post-secondary education increased by 202 percent. That sounds good, but the percentage is fed by huge population growth rather than improved performance.

Today, Latinos account for 14.5 percent (3.6 million) of the total traditional college-age students ages 18-24. Yet they make up just 9 percent of those in higher education.

By 2025, Latinos will comprise 22 percent of persons in that age group. A 1996 study found that about one-third of Latinos who completed college took six years to earn an undergraduate degree. Their most common majors were business, social sciences and education.

So what about graduate study? Between 1978 and 1998, Latino graduate school enrollment doubled from 2 percent to 4 percent. Figures from the American Council on Education showed of the 1.75 million people enrolled in graduate school in '98, 72 percent were white, 7.5 percent African American, 4.5 percent Latino, 4.7 percent Asian, and 0.5 percent Native American. Students classified as non-resident aliens made up the remaining 10.8 percent.

ne of the major identified reasons more Latinos do not pursue post-secondary education is economic. To combat this, the Clinton administration has proposed tax credits, new scholarship programs and an increase in the number of work study programs offered and Pell Grants awarded. At the June White House gathering of some 300 Latino leaders and educators and administration officials, President Clinton proposed five goals that directly impact Latinos. He set the year 2010 as the date to reach them:

-- Raise the Latino participation in preschool programs from 26 percent to the national average of around 40 percent.

-- Ensure all Latino high school graduates are proficient in English.

-- Eliminate achievement gaps between Latinos and other students at all grade levels in school testing and other standards.

-- Increase Latino high school completion rates from about 67 percent to 90 percent.

-- Double the percentages of those who earn associate and bachelor's degrees.

Other programs which the White House and its Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans are focusing are reducing class size, expanding after-school and summer programs, ensuring access to educational technology, improving teacher quality, upgrading facilities and equalizing funding in public schools. No small order.

``There has been a real attempt to connect the dots along the educational pipeline from the U.S. Department of Education and the White House,'' Ramírez says. He adds that these efforts, albeit limited, have provided results that match their intent and budgets to cover the programming. Public education is basically a local and state responsibility, with the federal government contributing only about 7% of the moneys spent on it nationally.

Another area the administration has stressed is bilingual education. Currently about 3.5 million children in the United States have limited English skills. Department of Education Secretary Richard Riley has suggested the creation of more dual-immersion/dual-language schools across the country to increase biliteracy.

Pompa points out, ``The Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 addressed accountability, and this is an area where we have not made progress. Accountability systems and the needs of Hispanic students and non-English-speaking students is where we must continue to work.''

More has to be done to ensure resources are targeted to school districts with high Hispanic populations and to improve data collection on Hispanic students to measure how well they are being served, she concluded.

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