Thursday, July 21, 2005

Latino and African American Dropouts

Coalition seeks more Latinos, blacks among grads

By Laurel Rosenhall -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, July 21, 2005
Marianna Rivera still chokes back tears as she describes her son's difficulties during high school more than a decade ago. He witnessed violence, skipped class and was surrounded by administrators who expected the worst from him, Rivera said.

Despite her efforts to get involved in his education and talk to school counselors, Rivera's son ended up dropping out.

For the Sacramento mother of four, the memory is a source of pain, but also motivation.

"The way I fought for my son, we need someone to be like that for all our kids," Rivera said Wednesday as she stood on the west steps of the Capitol, where African American and Latino community leaders announced a new group focused on improving high school graduation rates.

Rivera's three other children graduated from the Sacramento City Unified School District. Yet even with one child who didn't make it, the graduation rate in Rivera's family is better than it is across the school district.

Just 53 percent of Sacramento City Unified students graduate after four years in high school, according to 2002 data analyzed by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. The success rate is lower among the district's African American and Latino students, who graduate at rates of 38 percent and 41 percent, respectively, Harvard researchers found.

"What about the 60 percent that didn't make it?" said Reggie Fair, who serves on the board of Sacramento's chapter of the NAACP, as he addressed the crowd gathered outside the Capitol.

"Where are they? What is the impact to our society?"

The new group of which Fair is a member - called the Coalition for African American and Latino Academic Achievement, Now - was formed by several Sacramento community groups including the NAACP, La Raza Network, Greater Sacramento Urban League, Chicano Consortium and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The group came together in response to the Harvard report released in March, as well as others that have documented a big gap between the academic performance of Latino and black students and their white and Asian American peers.

In Sacramento City Unified, for example, 51 percent of white students are proficient in English language arts, while 22 percent of black students have reached that level, according to data from Just for the Kids - California, a Web site that analyzes state test data.

The pattern continues across the region and the state.

"It's been well-documented in various reports that we are facing a crisis," said Manuel Valencia, of La Raza Network. "We're here ... to solve this."

Community leaders called on educators, parents and students to join the coalition and work on finding solutions to a problem that has nagged at public education for decades. They invited people to visit a new Web site,, for information on community meetings and links to reports on the achievement gap and graduation rates.

Fair said he wanted to listen to community concerns regarding the education of Latino and African American youth. Then, he said, the group would form an action plan. That could include conversations with school officials about race and equality, forming a more culturally relevant curriculum or coming up with ways to boost parent engagement, Fair said.

Rivera said she wants each high school to have an adult who is responsible for looking out for African American and Latino students. The person would act as an advocate for the students, call parents when their children miss class and make sure students are accumulating the credits necessary to graduate on time.

That proposal mirrored one suggestion from a researcher who worked on the Harvard dropout report.

"Something that's often useful is more individualized attention to a student's plan for graduation, someone making sure they get the credit they need," said Chris Swanson, who now works as a researcher for Ed Week in Maryland.

It's important for students to feel "that adults at school care about how they do," he said.

Swanson also suggested an emphasis on literacy in the ninth grade as a way to close the achievement gap and boost graduation rates. Students with poor reading skills tend to suffer in all academic subjects, he said, because the skill is crucial to understanding lessons in history, science and math. Once they fall behind in credits, Swanson said, they're more likely to drop out.

The report has generated massive community response throughout California, said Julie Mendoza, a UCLA education policy expert who also worked on the Harvard study.

"African American and Latino community members and politicians have known for years that these problems existed. The report gave them a framework to begin to organize," Mendoza said.

Efforts similar to those in Sacramento have been launched in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland, she said.

"This report provides the type of information that says: It's not just in our heads; this is concrete, this is real."

Two school board members from Sacramento City Unified - Roy Grimes and Miguel Navarrette - attended a press conference July 14 and said they were committed to boosting academic performance.

They were joined by a trustee from Natomas Unified.

"I started looking at the numbers in Natomas and I realized we are like the rest of the state when it comes to students of color," said Jennifer Baker, who was elected to the school board last year.

Natomas schools generally score well on the state's standardized tests. But Baker said huge disparities remain between ethnic groups.

"Just because you have high test scores doesn't mean all the kids are doing well," she said.

Demanding that schools focus on the students who are not doing well is exactly why the coalition came together, said Rivera, the Sacramento City parent.

"I'm proud to be a part of a group of people who are finally saying, 'Ya basta,' " she said.

That's Spanish for "Enough, already."

Graphic: Student performance [52k GIF]

About the writer:
• The Bee's Laurel Rosenhall can be reached at (916) 321-1083 or
this story is from the Sacramento Bee.
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