Latino college agenda gets traction

Official says numbers 'worse than we thought'
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Juan Sepúlveda started the meeting with his usual question. “Before you got invited, how many of you knew this office existed?” Sepúlveda is Executive Director of the White House Office on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. The response was different this time. Instead of the expected smattering of recognition, nearly everyone sitting around the conference tables in the Technology building at San Jose City College raised their hands. This invitation-only group included about 30 people from education, business, and Hispanic advocacy groups in Silicon Valley.

They spent the morning last Friday discussing strategies for increasing the number of Latinos who enroll in and graduate from college. “It’s bad,” said Sepúlveda. “The latest census numbers tell us it’s even worse than we thought.” Until a few weeks ago, it was estimated that about 13 percent of  Latinos in the United States held bachelor’s degrees. But that figure fell to 9 percent when new U.S. Census data showed that the Hispanic population jumped by 15.2 million since 2000, without a corresponding increase in college graduates. The numbers for advanced degrees are even more dismal; less than 5 percent of Latinos hold graduate or professional degrees.

Latest census figures show college graduation rates for Latinos remain low (click to enlarge)

Latest census figures show college graduation rates for Latinos remain low (click to enlarge)

Today, there are 54 million Hispanics in the United States, accounting for more than 16 percent of the population. As one study after another warns that the United States has slipped behind the rest of the developed world in educational attainment,  Sepúlveda reasons that “the future of the United States is inextricably linked to the future of the Latino people.” That’s what brought him to San Jose on this day, and San Francisco the day before.

Reaching parents is critical

“The most important thing we want to do by the end of this meeting is figure out how we’re going to work together,” Sepúlveda told the participants before they split into two groups and began brainstorming about what to do next. Several people said that parents need to be pulled into the conversation. No one has shown them the data on how bad the situation is, said Lorena Hernandez, Comcast’s director of community investments. Alex Torres, Vice President of the Community Development Office at Wells Fargo Bank, suggested that when parents enroll their children in school, they should have to attend a class focused on creating an expectation that their kids will go to college.

Jose Rico, Deputy Director of the White House Office on Educational Excellence of Hispanic Americans, said money – and how to get it – is a huge barrier. Even though the federal government has doubled the number of Pell Grant recipients, Rico said they haven’t done a good job of getting that information out to parents. “When we ask them how they’d pay [for college], they’re not aware of the grants,” he said.

And they’re not getting the information from school counselors either – not since the budget deficit decimated those positions. Before the latest round of cuts, the ratio of college counselors to high school students was 1 to 600 and is expected to drop even more. But Rico said some of the most innovative work his office is seeing around the country involves having community organizations take on the role that college counselors used to provide. He and Sepúlveda see their role as fostering connections like that among schools, community groups, and businesses.

“We tell the communities that they should think of us as a consulting company; we can convene, we can broker, we can come in and help you think about the process of how you do this work,” explained Sepúlveda.

Long Beach and Inland Empire on the move

San Jose is considered a “Tier 2″ city in its progress toward implementing a community-wide effort to close the achievement gap and ensure that more Latino students are college ready. That means it’s in the early stages. Long Beach and the Inland Empire are among a dozen or so Tier 1 communities nationwide that are deemed models by the Office on Educational Excellence of Hispanic Americans.

In California’s Inland Empire, Sepúlveda said his office helped bring several disparate factions to the table, what he describes as an elite group from the city and a grassroots movement in outlying areas. Along with Cal State San Bernardino and UC Riverside, they’ve created an infrastructure of people, schools, and community organizations working to create a transition from elementary school to college.

The 3-year-old Long Beach College Promise is already well known for its collaboration among the K-12 school district, Long Beach City College, and Cal State Long Beach to guarantee a place in college for graduates of Long Beach Unified School District. The program, which TOP-Ed’s John Fensterwald wrote about earlier this year, also relies on support from local business, industry, and community organizations to provide hands-on career training.

Silicon Valley faces a bigger challenge in creating a partnership between K-12 and higher education because there are so many more schools – 32 districts in Santa Clara County alone, six community colleges, and San Jose State University. But the Santa Clara County Office of Education has had success in getting folks on the same page with its SJ2020 initiative to eliminate the achievement gap in San José by the year 2020.

The Hispanic Foundation of San José is part of that effort. Led by the city’s former mayor, Ron Gonzales, who organized Friday’s meeting, the Foundation works with community partners to offer scholarships and summer boot camps in math and science. The Foundation also published the first Silicon Valley Latino Report Card, giving education a C grade. So Gonzales is eager to work with the White House Office to implement some of its successful strategies. “We know as a community what the issues are and what some of the solutions are,” he said. “What we don’t know is how to successfully implement some of those solutions in the fiscal environment in which we exist.”

That fits well with Sepúlveda’s mission. He says the problem is well known and now it’s time to get to work.

Additional Reading

Winning the Future: Improving Education for the Latino Community, U.S. Department of Education and White House Office on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, May 2011.

Winning the Future: President Obama’s Agenda and the Hispanic Community, The White House, March 2011.

1 Comment

  1. It is a great idea to acknowledge the importance of parent involvement, which k-12 has been addressing for years among the Latino community. 

    The importance to address the achievement gap among Latino students goes beyond parent involvement.  Parent involvement is one of the many variables that we need to address.  It is simple to say that we need to require all parents to take a course, but the difficulties to enroll 20 parents into a course in the afternoon or weekends is more than just a simple task.

    The idea to supplement k-12 in school counseling support with community brokers or community assistance is not a new one either.  In California we have address such an issue with very successful programs such as PUENTE, Migrant Ed, CAL-SOAP and many other successful models which reach out to students and parents.  However, these programs have become victims of budget cuts and mission has change to serve all students.

    My question is why reinvent the wheel?  Why supplement with something new in the community?  In school counselors can deliver better outcomes if the appropriate resources are truly earmark to support the most vulnerable students and not expand on the duties of the counselors. 

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