Raleigh, NC - AP Nationally, nearly 37 percent of foreign-born Hispanics age 16 to 19 are dropouts, either in their home country or in the United States, according to an analysis of 2000 Census figures by the Pew Hispanic Center. In Southern states where the immigrant population is booming, those numbers are even higher - nearly 63 percent in Alabama, 58 percent in North Carolina and 55 percent in Georgia.
Even among Hispanics 16 to 19 who were educated entirely in the United States, 15 percent nationally are dropouts, compared with 12 percent for blacks and 8 percent for whites. In the South, the dropout rate among those U.S.-born Hispanics is 18 percent, and in some states, such as North Carolina, it's above 20 percent.
"It's difficult for people to see how alarming the situation is," says Marco Zarate, who helped found the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals to address the education gap in a state where the Latino population more than quadrupled over the past decade. "We feel a moral responsibility to be doing something for our young people."
For the past five years, Zarate's society has held an annual summit to find ways to better educate Hispanics, who often come to the United States barely literate in their native Spanish. Many of them quit school dispirited at not picking up their new language fast enough, leaving behind only poor records and poor attendance.
Even immigrants who get good grades and have the credentials for college often feel hopeless, knowing their options for higher education are limited. North Carolina, like most states, bars illegal immigrants, even those who attended high school in the state, from paying affordable in-state tuition rates at public colleges.
About 6.3 percent of all students in North Carolina were Hispanic in 2003-04. Just 47 percent of Hispanics who entered the ninth grade in the state in 1999 graduated four years later, a measure that reflects not just dropouts, but also the struggles of students.
Pressure to work often comes first, trapping young Hispanics in a cycle of low-skilled, low-paying jobs. According to 2003 Census figures, 55 percent of dishwashers in Wake County, which includes Raleigh, were Hispanic and 67 percent of construction workers in Durham County were Hispanic.
Nelly Armas, a 24-year-old single mother of two, works as a clerk in a tienda by day and attends classes in the Raleigh suburb of Cary four nights a week in hopes of getting her high school equivalency diploma.
She came from Mexico believing education was unnecessary to make it in the United States, quitting school at age 15, just before the birth of her first child.
"I was young and dumb," she says. "I tried to go back, but my baby was little. I needed to work."
To address that kind of dilemma, Durham County schools are considering a proposal that would allow students to attend classes later in the day.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the state's largest school system, established an International Center staffed by bilingual assistants, nurses, ESL teachers, counselors and a psychologist to help Hispanics adjust to school, and stay there.
In Wake County, where the number of students who identify themselves as Hispanic has more than doubled in the past four years to 9,300, the school system recently hired a Spanish-speaking liaison officer who trains teachers about Latino culture and educates Hispanic parents about the need for education.
Tom Hartenstein, an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher at Durham's Riverside High, has seen students drift in and out of school as they balance disappointment, frustration and financial demands. He has also seen students persevere and succeed.
This year, four of his students moved in together to share expenses so they could finish school after their parents left the area. One, stymied by a single class required for his diploma, quit in late February.
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