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Falling Through the Cracks: Latina Dropouts

Report shows Latinas want to graduate, but lack optimism.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Almost every single Latina teen surveyed by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) said the same thing: They want to graduate from high school. More than 80 percent said they strived for a college degree as well.

But will they? Can they? Even they don’t think so. Not really. Not when you get down to the callous truth of poor preparation in the earliest grades, inadequate school and community supports, lack of English fluency, limited involvement by parents, and persistent discrimination and ethnic stereotyping.

So, even though 98 percent of Latinas say they really want to graduate, a third admit it’s unlikely. And, in fact, an appalling 41 percent of Hispanic girls will not graduate with their class. At the same time, Latinas also have the highest teen pregnancy rates of any group in the United States – with 53 percent becoming pregnant before age 20.

“To ignore high dropout rates among Latina students is to turn our backs on the American promise of fairness and equality of opportunity,” said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the law center, which, in partnership with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) released its instructive report, “Listening to Latinas: Barriers to High School Graduation.”

Lucy Flores was one of those numbers. One of 13 children, raised in poverty by her father in Southern Nevada, her six sisters all got pregnant in their teens. Two of her brothers are in prison now. Two others are dead from drug- and gang-related violence. So, when Lucy Flores started skipping school and running around with gang members in middle school, it seemed to her that nobody really expected much else.

“Bottom line, I was just another bad Latina at a low-income school where nobody took the time to care,” said Flores, who now is a third-year law student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Back in high school, she dropped out, served time in a juvenile center, and then slowly reclaimed her life under the watch of a supportive parole officer.

“Would it have been different if somebody had actually said, ‘Why are you dropping out? Are you coming back?’ I don’t know, I can’t go back in time, but it certainly could have helped,” Flores said.

The report outlines a number of steps that policy-makers should take – many of which match the legislative priorities of the NEA. First, Congress should fully pay for and promote quality early childhood education. At the same time, lawmakers also should expand education and training for child-care providers, and expand access to family supports such as housing, health care, nutrition assistance, and tax benefits.

Both NEA and the report’s sponsors, NWLC and MALDEF, also call on Congress to increase opportunities for immigrants to attend college – the DREAM Act would do that – and increase financial aid for students. 

Schools and educators also have a great deal of work to do, the report says. More Latinas should be connected to caring adults through role-model programs. And all schools should believe that all students can be prepared for college, the report urges. Dual language programs, also acclaimed by NEA, should be expanded, as should those that support pregnant or parenting students.

In particular, parental involvement by Hispanic parents – a persistent challenge for many schools across America – needs to be improved, the report says. Literacy programs that serve parents, like the one highlighted by NEA Today last year, can work wonders. Making sure to have translators and childcare at meetings is also very helpful.

“Young Latinas deserve more from their schools,” Flores urged. “I fell through the cracks and I made my way back – but I’m one of the lucky ones.”


Listing to Latinas: Barriers to High School Graduation report

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