I can't think of a more serious obstacle to Hispanic progress than school dropouts. But, frankly, I am tired of hearing the same old excuses for the problem.
Academic leaders are worried that a new underclass, composed mostly of Hispanics, is emerging in our economy. Even worse, few of those experts seem to know how to deal with the situation.
But I doubt Hispanics are so naive that they don't know where the problem is. They do. What we don't know is when the Hispanic community will do something about it.
In the past, Hispanics were justified to blame mainstream America for their dire educational and economic status. Discrimination on the job discouraged many from putting any emphasis on education. No matter how well Hispanics did in school, ethnic barriers blocked their entry to good-paying jobs. To many, education was a waste of time. "Who needs an education to dig holes, sweep or pick crops?" frustrated Hispanics would ask themselves.
I was an above-average student when I graduated from high school in 1956. Yet I still remember my dad hoping I would be able to get a job at a meat packing company.
Fortunately, times have changed. We now have strong anti-discrimination laws protecting most workers. Though you always will find some discrimination, most successful companies consider the educated individual a luxury in today's competitive market. Today, businesses will hire an educated worker regardless of his skin color or ethnicity.
"Why then," we ask, "are Hispanics quitting school when good jobs are available to almost everyone?" Let me list a few of what I think are the main reasons for the high
dropout rate among Hispanic students:
- THE LOVE BUG. No one seems to say much about this educational wrecker, but it is here. When I was in school, almost half of the kids in my old barrio in north Fort Worth got married before graduation. Not all were due to pregnancy. Today, many Hispanics still are marrying before graduating.
- THE UNEDUCATED BEGETS THE UNEDUCATED. When I was in grade school in the early 1950s, most of my classmates left during the year to work with their migrant parents. They missed a lot of school and never were able to catch up on their studies. Most of them quit school. Today, those dropouts and their families are having tough financial times. And their children are caught in the same cycle. Since the late 1970s and to this day, we have had
a tremendous number of undocumented workers moving here from Mexico. Many are uneducated. Many have married American girls. Their lack of understanding about the importance of a good education now is hurting their children.
- BILINGUAL EDUCATION. In 1944, my mom enrolled me in a predominantly Hispanic Catholic school. Few of us spoke English. But in a relatively brief time, the nuns taught all of us to read and write in English. Today, many Hispanic students are herded into bilingual programs and kept there longer than needed. As the classes in the higher grades get tougher, the youngsters' poor comprehension of English spells disaster for them. Out of
frustration, many quit school.
Now, let me list some reasonable solutions to the problems I have just mentioned.
- THE LOVE BUG. Parents, these youngsters are your offspring. You need to guide them morally and spiritually. Talk to them about the birds and the bees. Tell them how difficult it is to raise a family even when one is educated, but worse when one isn't.
- THE UNEDUCATED BEGETS THE EDUCATED. Fathers, let your sons feel your callused hands. Tell them how proud you would be of them if they could escape the menial jobs that often await the uneducated. Mothers should do the same with their daughters.
Here are some statistics I obtained from the Census Bureau on the yearly incomes of Hispanics: those who have completed fewer than eight years of school, $ 13,540; those with eight years, $ 16,319; those with one to three years of high school, $ 17,939; high school graduates, $ 25,136; those with one to three years of college, $ 31,006; college graduates, $ 43,382.
Teachers in schools with large Hispanic student bodies should make a chart with those figures and ask: What yearly income do you want to earn? Unless you show students what a poor education means in terms of lost dollars, they won't understand the importance of staying in school.
- BILINGUAL EDUCATION. I recommend total immersion like my fellow Hispanic students and I went through at San Jose Catholic School. Or at least a bilingual program that gets them into the mainstream as quickly as possible. In my opinion, no Hispanic student should be in a bilingual program more than two years.
Hispanic kids aren't dumb; they just have a language barrier to overcome. They have the same brain power as other kids. But we have to make them use it!
By James H. Reza, free lance writer from Fort Worth, Texas
4204 Grand Lake
Lake Worth, Texas 76135