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Updated SUNDAY June 4, 2000

Dropout rate for Hispanics is worrisome

With the newly formed Hispanic Advisory Council, educators hope to curb the high drop-out rate among Latinos.

By Joe Rodriguez The Wichita Eagle

Miguel found the challenges of a new country and new language too great, lost interest in high school and left after his freshman year.

Jesus found himself getting into too much trouble in middle school and said he didn't get the support he needed. He left school three months ago.

Their stories are not unlike those of thousands of Hispanic students every year. Hispanics continue to drop out of school at a higher rate than other students across the city, state and nation.

Wichita school officials think they have the start of a solution in the newly formed Hispanic Advisory Council, which will seek ways to improve educational achievement among Hispanics.

But they say it will also take a cooperative effort among parents, teachers and the community to help Hispanic students overcome the cultural barriers to success.

Miguel, for example, moved with his family to Wichita from Mexico about five years ago and enrolled at North High School as a freshman. He is now 20, works at a restaurant and has no plans to get an equivalency degree.

"I just didn't want to go anymore," said Miguel, who didn't want to be identified by his real name. "I didn't think I could make it three (more) years."

Others leave because they have to go to work to help support the family. And, students say, some leave because of pregnancy or peer pressure.

In the 1998-99 school year, the dropout rate in Wichita for Hispanics was at its lowest level since at least 1992 -- 8.1 percent. But it was still higher than the dropout rate for black students, at 5.6 percent, and white students, at 5.2 percent.

Nationwide, dropout statistics are kept differently. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Education statistics, nearly 30 percent of Hispanics ages 16 to 24 were out of school and lacking a high school diploma or equivalency degree. The numbers were significantly lower for whites (11.8 percent) and blacks (13.8 percent).

Wichita schools Superintendent Winston Brooks said it doesn't matter which way the numbers are broken down.

"The fact remains that (Hispanics have) the highest dropout rate regardless of whose formula you want to use," he said, "and I think we have to address that."

A new approach

The Hispanic Advisory Council is made up of about 30 educators, business people and religious leaders in the Hispanic community. It met for the first time last month and will meet again Tuesday.

"I think the their (the committee's) biggest priority is to start reducing that dropout rate," said Leo Casados, the president of the Hispanic/Native American Coalition, which helped form the advisory committee.

The goal is to come up with ways to help keep students like Miguel and Jesus, 15, in school, to get them to return to school and to create more success stories.

Jesus, who wanted to be identified only by his first name, was a straight-A student as a sixth-grader. But he soon began to struggle with classes and started showing up late. By the time he was in eighth grade, he was missing almost as many classes as he was attending.

"You mess up once, they get you on that list where you're a troublemaker," he said. "Then, you get that label."

He lost more interest after a teacher criticized his attendance in front of classmates. Then he was expelled for fighting in class and decided not to return.

He's now working at a fast-food restaurant. He says his parents will let him decide whether to return to school next year.

Casados wants the new advisory committee to come up with ways to encourage more parents to get involved in their kids' education. He wants to see more mentoring programs. And he wants to help teachers find ways to bridge the cultural divide.

Brooks agrees that barriers such as language and culture keep some Hispanic students from succeeding.

"But we as a school district have to break down all those barriers so that we can reach those families," he said."... It's our responsibility to engage those families in school."

One of the ideas the advisory council has touched on is creating a learning center in the Hispanic community similar to the one at the Urban League of Wichita for youths who have been out of school for at least a year.

Brooks said one possible site is the Evergreen Recreation Center in north Wichita, where many of the city's Hispanics live.

Ralph Teran, division director of secondary schools and a member of the advisory council, thinks the group can find solutions.

"We know in the schools that we can't be really successful if we don't have a total community approach to whatever we deal with," Teran said, "and that's what we have."

A cooperative effort

Not all Hispanic students have fallen. There are those like Venessa Gonzalez, who graduated near the top of her North High class on Thursday.

Gonzalez said her father constantly emphasized the importance of education. He came from Mexico about 20 years ago and struggled in low-paying jobs. Gonzalez said listening to her father taught her a lot.

"That really motivates me to make them (her parents) proud," she said, "but at the same time, make something of myself, rather than just becoming another statistic."

Fellow North graduate Liz Perez agrees.

"If their family would be more supportive and push them to do things, I think it would work out," she said. "But parents just give up too fast."

Maria Velasquez, who has four children in Wichita schools, also thinks parental involvement is essential.

Velasquez said she constantly encourages her kids to do well in school. She spends time in the schools, talking with teachers.

"I want to know how they're doing," she said.

And she tries to set a good example. Velasquez, 35, graduated this spring from Wichita State University with a degree in criminal justice and has her sights set on law school.

She says a lot of Hispanic parents aren't willing to explain to their kids how important school is and how working hard now can pay off later. That's why many Hispanic youths -- particularly newcomers -- leave school for jobs.

"They just want to see the money right away," said Velasquez, who came to Kansas from Mexico when she was 15 and overcame the language barrier. "But you have to realize to get something, you have to pay the price first, then you'll see the reward."

Perez also said the responsibility ultimately falls on the student.

"It's also on you, you know?" she said. "You have to want to do it, because if you don't want to do it, you're not going to try your hardest."

Some say it's also up to the schools to overcome cultural barriers and encourage kids to stay in school.

Teachers need more cultural training, Casados said, especially with the culture of newcomers. Brooks said the district may also need to consider more night classes that could appeal to Hispanic students.

But ultimately, he said, it's going to take educators, parents and students to succeed.

"If we're going to address these issues, the Hispanic community's got to also step up to the plate," he said. "I promise them that the ... district, the superintendent will step up to the plate."