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Maximizing Latinos' opportunities is the goal of education meetings

Saturday, March 18, 2000

By LINDA ASHTON THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

YAKIMA -- Many schools in Washington are failing to meet the needs of Latino students, the fastest-growing student population in the state, education activists say.

As a group, Latino students frequently rank last on standardized tests and face being labeled as dumb or underachievers, said Ricardo Sanchez of Seattle, who is coordinating the Latino Educational Achievement Project.

The group has scheduled community meetings today in Yakima and tomorrow in Pasco to discuss ways to maximize educational opportunities for Latino students and help shape any reform initiatives.

"We need to find out what's going on within the districts and in the state," said Raymond Lara, a Toppenish construction worker with five grown children. "There are changes to be made, and we want to be part of the changes."

Some concerns include plans for new achievement tests for students, the financing of bilingual and migrant education programs, the need for more Spanish-speaking teachers, the high dropout rates among Latino students and poor test performance.

The Hispanic student population in Washington increased 114 percent between 1985 and 1995 -- and as much as 500 percent in some small Eastern Washington school districts -- compared with a 7 percent increase among Anglo students, state statistics show.

Last year, the largest number of Latino students were enrolled in Yakima, 6,804; Pasco, 5,368, and Seattle, 4,636.

"I want to see everyone have the opportunity to succeed," said Lara, 49, a fourth-generation American who came from a Spanish-speaking household and learned most of his English in California schools

under the old "sink or swim" approach.

Most of the time he was just "treading water," Lara said, but he managed to get through with the help of a few understanding teachers. Others told him not to waste his

time; he'd just end up a field hand anyway.

"We don't want to revert back to what it was like in the '50s and '60s when children were chastised for speaking their native tongue," Lara said.

© 2000 The Associated Press.