By Adam Wren
If it were a fatal disease, it would have claimed more lives in the U.S. than cancer did in 2008.
If it were a natural disaster, it would have exacted a higher casualty toll than the Asian tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake that rocked Haiti earlier this year – combined.
And if those who fell to it from the class of 2008 lived in one U.S. city, it would have a population larger than the District of Columbia.
It’s the nation’s high school dropout crisis, and it may not spell death for its victims as a terminal illness does, or carry the violent force of a hurricane-paced gale, but experts say the impact it could have on the nation could still prove to be of epic proportions.
Worse yet: It’s disproportionately impacting Hispanic youth, America’s largest and among its fastest growing ethnic demographics.
“We’re losing about half of the men and a good portion of the Latino women before they graduate from high school,” says Frances Contreras, assistant professor of education at the University of Washington.
“We’re losing about half of the men and a good portion of the Latino women before they graduate from high school,” says Frances Contreras, assistant professor of education at the University of Washington. Educators, economists, demographers and government officials are beginning to brace for impact, charting out worst-case scenarios much as a scientist in a disaster movie would on the eve of catastrophe.
A coming wave of Hispanic dropouts, they say, could sap the nation’s personal income levels, erode its tax base, slow car and home sales, stunt civic engagement and cost taxpayers billions of dollars more in social services than current expenditures – unless trends are reversed.
“It’s a recipe for disaster, socially,” says Contreras, co-author of “The Latino Education Crisis.” Published in 2009, the book traces a bleak picture of what America could look like by 2030: a weakened national economy, longer welfare rolls and fewer public funds available for roads and bridges. “It threatens our national and global competitiveness if we’re not investing in Latinos,” Contreras says.
By Adam Wren
Why the sudden alarm? After all, dropout rates among Hispanic students have been higher than their peers for at least the past 30 years.
“The crisis is a national crisis because of the demographic data,” says Frances Contreras, co-author of “The Latino Education Crisis.” One in five schoolchildren is Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. By 2050, Pew estimates, Latino children will outnumber their white classmates.
Of the 4.2 million students who entered the nation’s high schools in 2004, fewer than 3 million graduated four years later, according to a U.S. Department of Education report released in June. Of the roughly 600,000 who dropped out in 2008, more than 160,000 were Hispanics.
“When 25 percent of our students – and almost 40 percent of our black and Hispanic students – fail to graduate high school on time, we know that too many of our schools are failing to offer their students a world-class education,” says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
When the report was released, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan didn’t hide his disappointment. “Today’s report confirms that our nation faces a dropout crisis,” he said. “When 25 percent of our students – and almost 40 percent of our black and Hispanic students – fail to graduate high school on time, we know that too many of our schools are failing to offer their students a world-class education.”
A volley of recent reports from national research centers and advocacy groups supports the concern.
By Adam Wren
The nation’s 50 largest cities could see substantial economic gains if they would reduce their dropouts by 50 percent, according to a June report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based school reform organization. In turn, that crop of graduates could swell the nation’s home sales by $10.5 billion and auto sales by $340 million by the time those students reach the midpoint of their careers. Dropouts from the class of 2009 deprived the nation’s economy of $335 billion – in lost income alone, according to report issued by the Alliance last fall.
At least 19 states could see precipitous drops in average personal incomes in the next decade, as fewer of their residents earn high school diplomas, according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Those dips could range from $5 in North Dakota up to $2,475 in California. Nationwide, annual incomes could plummet by an average of $395. The report’s author, Patrick J. Kelley, says that while the demographics used to fuel the estimates were culled from the 2000 census, those numbers are, if anything, conservative.
In California, where Latinos account for half the students in the public schools, the story is stark. By 2020, California could see an 11 percent drop in personal incomes unless Hispanics and other minorities earn more diplomas, according to the center’s study.
“I’m really frightened for our country if nothing is done,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.”
Talking about the nation’s dropout problem, former governor of West Virginia Bob Wise doesn’t mince words. “I’m really frightened for our country if nothing is done,” says Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
As a governor, Wise realized that education fueled a state’s development. “There may be a businessman who says, ‘I don’t have kids in the public education system, what do I care?’ “Wise says. “That high school 15 miles across town has an impact on the community’s well-being.”
By Adam Wren
Some states are already experiencing the demographic shifts that will hit others in the next decade. On the frontline is Texas, where school districts have seen rapid changes among their student populations over the past decade.
Nearly half the state’s public school students are now Hispanic.
Public school districts such as Houston have seen their white enrollment decline from majority-white enrollments a decade ago to just 7 percent of their 202,700 students today. Hispanics now account for 61.7 percent of enrollment. There, the graduation rate among white students is 84.7 percent, while that of Hispanics is 62.8 percent (Click here to see what Houston schools are doing to improve graduation rates).
“We’re not seeing as much alarm as we would like among the community around the issue,” says Bob Sanford, president of the Houston-based community group Children at Risk. “What’s happening in Texas is going to happen in other states,” he says.
“We’re still at a stage where if a child decides to drop out, parents are fine with that, unfortunately, because at least the kids are going to work somewhere,” says Juan Rangle, CEO of UNO.
If these trends continue, the average Texan’s income could fall by about $6,500 in the next 30 years from 2000 levels, says Steve Murdock, a professor of sociology at Rice University and former head of the U.S. Census Bureau under George W. Bush.
By 2040, 30 percent of the state’s workforce could have less than a high school level of education, he estimates. “That is very sobering if you look at most kinds of economic development [measures],” says Murdock.
Even school districts in states with smaller Hispanic populations, such as Arkansas, Iowa and South Carolina, are struggling with how to tackle dropout rates and increasing Hispanic enrollment, says Patricia Gandara, co-author of “The Latino Education Crisis” and professor of education at the University of California. “They were unprepared for the influx of students,” Gandara says of schools in these states. “We’ve been hearing from folks in the schools, ‘We’re losing students and we don’t know what to do.’”
The severity of the problem nationwide is not lost on Juan Rangle, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, a community-organizing group in Chicago. UNO launched a network of charter schools in 2004 aimed at improving Hispanic education.
“Hispanics and immigrants tend to value work equal to education,” says Rangle. “We’re still at a stage where if a child decides to drop out, parents are fine with that, unfortunately, because at least the kids are going to work somewhere. “We have to change that culture; we have to change that mentality.”
By Adam Wren
Juan Sepúlveda is no stranger to challenges. Hailing from a Mexican-American neighborhood in Topeka, Kan., Sepúlveda became only the third Latino to receive a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1997, he was picked to run the first-ever Bipartisan Congressional Retreat to, more or less, get members of Congress to play nice. And in 2008, he headed up President Obama’s Texas campaign.
But for his latest – and perhaps most difficult – challenge as director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, he is trying to find ways to reverse decades of low graduation and college-going rates.
Here, in an interview edited for length, he talks about obstacles Hispanic student face and why the dropout rate isn’t improving.
Q: Education Secretary Arne Duncan appointed you on May 19, 2009. What have you been working on?
A: There weren’t a lot of folks outside D.C. who even knew this office existed. And so the first thing we did was get out of D.C. to host a series of community conversations, introduce ourselves to the community, get a chance to hear from folks directly about what they were going through in the Latino community.
The first year we visited 20 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. We had 100 community conversations and close to 10,000 people across the country participated.
Q: Did some common themes surface?
A: Yes and no. On the K-12 side, not a surprise: A big focus on the dropout question itself. Across the communities, people were concerned about what the dropout rate really is. There’s a sense from a lot of folks that the numbers being reported are not accurate.
“Across the communities, people were concerned about what the dropout rate really is. There’s a sense from a lot of folks that the numbers being reported are not accurate,” says Juan Sepúlveda.
We heard a lot of concern about our kids not getting through high school. We heard loud and clear across the country that Hispanics want their kids to go to college and graduate. So it was countering what people writing articles are saying: “Oh, maybe Latino parents don’t want their kids to go to school, you know, go get a job. Go take care of the family.”
We heard the complete opposite. And we also heard a lot of: “Help us understand the system. We want our kids to go, but we don’t know how it works.”
Q: It seems like the Hispanic dropout rate hasn’t improved a lot since the 1980s. Why do you think that is?
A: If you look at the research, the achievement gap for minorities in particular, there are 16 different factors – things that are happening inside the school and outside the school. In Latino high schools, and in the public schools in general, Latino students are more likely to have teachers who are missing a large number of days in their jobs. Teaching and leadership are part of the equation. When you look outside of the classroom – health care, safety and violence – all of those things come together to make it a more challenging experience for Latino kids to get through. Economics and class play into it as well.
The big challenge now is that the numbers have grown. The demographics have changed. Latinos are the largest minority within the public school system today. If you’re not in Chicago, if you’re not in Texas or California, you may not know that. If you’re on the East Coast, where the government is, there is a tendency to still think that the system is still traditionally an African-American and an Anglo system. But if you look at the numbers today, there are more than 11.5 million Latinos in the pre-K through 12 public school system.
If we want to reach the president’s 2020 goal of being No. 1 in the world again with the highest percentage of our population with a piece of paper beyond high school, you numerically can’t get there without the Latino community. I think the president gets that. Arne, as the education secretary, gets that. The demographics have changed the conversation.
Q: It seems like this goal of increasing the number of Hispanics who achieve a two-year or four-year degree is ambitious, given that 40 percent aren’t completing high school in some regions of the country.
A: This is not an easy thing to be taking on. One of the things Arne did in Chicago, that needs to happen in other communities, is that when presented with the real numbers about how bad things were, instead of running away from them, he said, “We have to be honest about the numbers.”
Once you’re honest about the numbers, you have a baseline to then move from. If you start with a high school class of 1,000 and four years later only 400 students graduate, it’s kind of hard to say the dropout rate is 10 percent. We know part of it is that there are a lot of pressures on schools to make things look as strong as they can.