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C.D.F. Joins Call To Improve Education of Hispanics

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Washington--The Children's Defense Fund has joined in the call for "an all-out effort" to improve educational services for Hispanic youths, in a new report documenting the plight of the nation's fastest growing but most undereducated ethnic group.

"Until recently," the report released here last week notes, "both their small numbers and America's melting-pot perspective kept the story of Latino youths contained within the broader discussion of the plight and the progress of American minorities."

Citing demographers' projections that the number of Hispanic youths--and potential entrants into the labor force--will surpass that of blacks early in the next century, the report argues that "this general perspective can no longer be justified."

Hispanic advocacy groups, led by the National Council of La Raza, used this argument in persuading President Bush last December to form a high-level task force to focus on Hispanic education issues.

The new report, "Latino Youths at a Crossroads," assembles in one place a broad array of demographic, economic, and educational data that portray the extent of the challenges facing this ethnic group. It includes recommendations for action to address those issues.

Its publication, cdf officials said, marks the return of education issues to the forefront of the Defense Fund's agenda after almost a decade in which it concentrated on children's health and welfare issues.

"We won our early battles over improving access to education services for poor and minority children, but access isn't enough if the quality isn't there," said Kati Haycock, the group's executive vice president. "We're getting out of preventing damage, and turning to promoting achievement."

Huge Attainment Gaps

In comparing the current educational attainment of young Latinos and those of other ethnic groups and whites, the report notes that Latinos lag significantly on three indicators:

The percentage of Hispanics who fail to receive a high-school diploma is almost three times the rate found among whites, and almost twice that of blacks. They also tend to drop out much earlier: In 1988, more than half of Hispanic dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24 had not even comel15lpleted the 9th grade, and 31 percent had not completed the 7th grade.

Hispanics are more likely than blacks and far more likely than whites to be two or more grades behind in school; the percentage who were that far behind increased by several points between 1981 and 1986. By age 17, one in six Hispanic students is at least two years behind expected grade level, and two in five are one year behind.

Only 7 percent of Hispanics who graduated from high school in 1980 had completed a four-year college degree by 1986, compared with 18 percent of black and 21 percent of white graduates.

Other statistics, however, including improvements in Hispanic test scores, give reason for optimism, according to the report's authors, Karen Pittman and Luis Duany. Ms. Pittman is director of educational improvement and adolescent-pregnancy prevention for the c.d.f.

Hispanic Characteristics

Although Hispanics share several common characteristics, the report says, there are significant differences in both the problems and progress of the major Hispanic subgroups: Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Central and South Americans, and others.

Within each of these groups, it says, are major differences in characteristics such as place of birth, length of U.S. residence, English-language proficiency, and socioeconomic status.

"Popular theories [used to explain Hispanic underachievement]--including recent immigration and language barriers--may have far less impact than factors such as family poverty, low educational attainment of parents, or segregation in low-quality schools," it suggests.

Hispanic families are less likely than black families to exhibit char4acteristics linked with lower educational attainment, including living in poverty or having heads of households who are single or unemployed.

But Hispanic students are far more likely than whites or blacks to have undereducated parents, which is also considered a major factor influencing a child's educational progress. Forty percent of Hispanic household heads have less than nine years of schooling, compared with only about 10 percent among white and black families.

Another factor explaining Hispanic underachievement, according to the report, is the fact that Latinos are now more likely than black students to be attending predominantly minority schools. Such schools, it notes, tend to have less-experienced teachers and "watered down" curricula.

Cultural factors less easy to quantify may also play a role, it says.

"Some argue that the differences result from Latino adherence to cultural values that place women in the home, not in the college classroom or the workplace, and encourage young men to enter the work force as soon as possible," they authors write.

Recommendations for Schools

The report recommends several improvements that would benefit non-Hispanics as well as Hispanics. But to meet the particular needs of Hispanics, it recommends school officials:

Hire more bilingual and Latino staff members both as teachers and guidance and outreach workers;

Develop programs to increase the literacy of parents and teach them how to help their children achieve;

Implement more programs that allow students to meet their economic needs while attending school or earning credits towards a diploma;

And establish programs to reduce the high incidence of early dropping out among Hispanics and to reach those who have already dropped out.

Copies of the report are available for $7.95 each from the cdf, 122 C St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

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