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Dropping Out Means La Vida Dura
by Maria T. Padilla
December 6, 2000
Polls show that education is the No. 1 concern among Hispanics, which explains why Luz Torres of Kissimmee is sobbing into the telephone.
The mother of two 17-year-old sons -- triplets that include a girl -- has exhausted ways to motivate the boys to take school seriously. They attend Gateway High School. The girl is doing OK, but the boys don`t meet the state`s 2.0 grade point average requirement for graduation.
Torres, who moved to the area last year from Maine, feels she isn`t measuring up. "I ask myself, `What am I doing that I`m not doing right?` " she said.
The question haunts many Hispanic parents. The uncomfortable truth is, Hispanic students have the state`s highest school dropout rate.
About 6 percent of Hispanic students drop out each year, new state data show. That figure has declined since 1998-99, when it was 8.3 percent, but it`s still higher for Hispanics than for all other groups.
A high dropout rate speaks directly to the potential quality of life for Hispanics. Sure, there are always a few people who will overcome the lack of a high school diploma, but most will be living la vida dura, eking out a minimum-wage existence.
During the next 25 years, strong population gains coupled with a vibrant economy may mean a rising tide for the Garcias, Hernandezes and Colons of the United States. But first they need to have boats to navigate. Hispanics have to be ready -- and able -- to seize the opportunities in education and employment.
That`s why Luz Torres is crying as she tells her sons` story. She worries about how to help them change course, and the struggle is depleting her energy.
Even as Torres was on the phone, she was called away to retrieve one of the two boys, who had tried to swipe a sandwich from a supermarket to impress a girl. The security guard didn`t press charges. The son doesn`t know how lucky he is.
Maybe someday the Torres family may be able to laugh at the stupid stunt. But not today.
Today is filled with frustration and a torrent of tears. As Torres unburdens herself, she has an epiphany.
Until that moment, she had said the trouble wasn`t her sons` fault. It was the school`s fault. The teachers didn`t understand. They had an attitude, and they were not encouraging.
No doubt there are teachers and school administrators who need attitude adjustments, who may not understand -- or even like -- Hispanics.
But more than half of Gateway`s graduates are Hispanics -- about equal to the proportion of Hispanic students at the school. Some Orange County schools with high Hispanic enrollment haven`t achieved such parity. Gateway must be doing something right.
After a few more sobs, Torres says quietly, "It`s not the school. It`s my kids. . . . They go to school but they`re not interested in going to school."
That`s another matter. Teachers typically are interested in students who come to school prepared. That`s fair to students who are ready to learn.
However, Torres` sons, like many Hispanic newcomers, are making a transition to a new school, new friends. They may resent having to do it.
It`s a mistake to conclude that parents of failing students aren`t interested in their children`s education. Oftentimes, they may not know how to help.
That`s why a handful of groups -- the YMCA Achievers and Compact, among others -- has sprung up to help.
This is a critical and trying moment for Torres. We`ll check with her periodically, and report how the family is faring.
Maria Padilla can be reached at 407-420-5162 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.