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Cepeda: Education is for parents, too

Published May 30, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CHICAGO — When I saw a recent Pew Hispanic Center report with the sunny title, "Hispanic High School Graduates Pass Whites in Rate of College Enrollment," I thought, "What's the catch?"

There was none on this exact point. A record 69 percent of Hispanic high school graduates in the class of 2012 enrolled in college that fall. But this was the only bright spot in the Pew survey.

The high school dropout rate is falling, but it is still far above the rate for whites. In 2011, 14 percent of Hispanics ages 16 to 24 were dropouts. This was half the level in 2000. White students, in comparison, had a 5 percent dropout rate in 2011.

And all those college-going Latinos don't have such great prospects for earning a degree. According to Pew, Hispanic students are much less likely than their white counterparts to enroll in a four-year college (56 percent versus 72 percent). They are less likely to attend a selective college, less likely to be enrolled in college full time, and less likely to complete a bachelor's degree.

In 2012, a similar 56 percent of all Hispanic students enrolled in undergraduate programs were studying in community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. And, as The Century Foundation recently noted, two-year schools are buckling under the weight of educating a more diverse and low-income student body with ever-scarcer resources.

You can sense my frame of mind as I attended my oldest son's eighth-grade promotion ceremony last week from a school where 72 percent of the students come from low-income families, and also 72 percent are Hispanic.

Walking up to the school, I tried to put the event into perspective. For many of the parents in attendance, this was going to be the last time they'd see their son or daughter don a cap and gown and collect a certificate of academic achievement. Based on our secondary school's graduation rate, about one out of every four of the promoted eighth-graders won't graduate from high school.

But my gloom lifted.

Such dire statistics don't stop all underprivileged children from putting hefty down payments on dreams of Ivy League educations and stellar careers.

In addition to the many students who were honored for high scholastic achievement and commitment to the school community, almost all of whom were minorities, the two academic achievement award winners — a Latino and an African-American — were true superstars.

Each already had higher grades and more community involvement and school volunteer experience than most student can claim throughout their academic careers. These youngsters were overachievers by any standard, not just in comparison to students who have not been exposed to lifelong enrichment activities.

Both these kids, despite all the crime and poverty that surround our school, will someday make their communities better places. And for all the handwringing over school funding, teacher competency, curriculum standards, standardized testing and cultural competency, the secret to Hispanic academic achievement — all academic achievement, really — comes down to parents.

The names of the high achievers are as well-known to us as the faces of their families. They're the same people we see over and over again, at every fundraiser, every parent meeting, every school celebration and awards ceremony. These parents — immigrant and native, middle-class and struggling, Spanish-only speakers and bilingual alike — have figured out the one silver bullet that overrides bad teaching, poor programs, and limited resources: passionate involvement coupled with high expectations.

As a whole, Hispanics have much ground to gain. Though there are many entities trying to engage parents in their children's academic life — cognitive stimulation, minimal parent-youth conflict, and academic involvement are bona fide keys to academic success — we're nowhere near reaching a critical mass.

Poverty is a barrier and so, to an extent, is culture. Widespread beliefs about school and teacher authority in Latin American countries posit that it's rude for a parent to intrude into school life because it is the school's job to educate and the parent's job to nurture — and the two do not mix.

Yet if our nation wants want Hispanic students to succeed, we have two jobs: We must educate Latino kids and their parents. A parent's role in championing students can supersede the conditions of the education systems they're stuck in and be the almost-magical key to academic excellence.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.