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Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as Panel Targets Hispanic Lag In Attainment

Panel Targets Hispanic Lag In Attainment

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A presidential panel is calling on the nation to concentrate an "unprecedented public will" on improving educational opportunity for Hispanics, engaging everyone from parents and community groups to businesses and government in a campaign to ensure that the fast-growing Hispanic youth population has a fair chance to strive and thrive.

For More Information

Read "Creating the Will: Hispanics Achieving Early Educational Excellence" online (requires Adobe's free Acrobat Reader), or order the report for free by calling Debbie Montoya at (202) 401-1411. Earlier reports from the commission are also available online, from the U.S. Department of Education.

In issuing its culminating report last week after six years of work, the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans looked soberly at the challenge ahead. While Hispanic youths have made some gains in achievement, it notes, they still lag significantly behind their non-Hispanic peers on most traditional indicators of educational success.

Improving the picture is crucial, it says, because of the sheer size of the population group: One-third of the nation's Hispanics are under 18, and in 25 years, Hispanic children are expected to make up a quarter of the school- age population.

"That is why there are such high stakes involved here, and what makes the work of this commission so important," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in an interview. "We need to send a message not just to finish high school, but college. The message is to think college, and that has to start young, as early as preschool."

Expanding educational opportunity for Hispanics is "a matter of economic and national security," said Guillermo Linares, a member of the New York City Council who serves as the chairman of the advisory commission.

The 21-member panel of current and former educators from around the country wanted to produce something more useful than a set of recommendations, he said, so it designed a "road map" for every sector of society to follow in helping close the achievement gap between Hispanics and their classmates by 2010.

It suggests steps that parents, schools, community- based organizations, businesses, and government can do to improve Hispanic children's performance, and also analyzes how each of those sectors has contributed to a less-than-rosy picture.

Members of the panel include Waldemar "Bill" Rojas, the former superintendent of the Dallas and San Francisco public schools, and Ruben Zacarias, a past superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Low Expectations

A critical problem in many parts of the education system, the report says, has been low expectations, which leave too many Hispanic youngsters ill-prepared or disinclined to set high goals for themselves. Underrepresentation in early- childhood programs, limited English proficiency, poverty, tracking into nonacademic classes, flawed assessment systems, and barriers to college—both financial and informational—also have contributed to the problem, the commission writes.

Beginning at home, the panelists urge parents to set high expectations and be actively involved in their children's education, communicating with teachers, helping with homework, and participating in school events. They also encourage parents to take advantage of the resources schools and community organizations offer and to become informed advocates for their children's best interests.

Colleges and universities can expand their recruitment of Hispanics, reaching down to middle school, the report says. And elementary and secondary schools must set high goals for students—such as requiring all students to take college-preparatory courses—and better prepare teachers to handle students of diverse cultural backgrounds.

Schools can link up with community groups to offer after-school programs and other services to enhance school readiness, the panel suggests, and provide tutoring, mentoring, and comprehensive parent education and support.

'We Have To Listen'

A school in Denver illustrates the sensitivity required to form the strong parent-school links envisioned by the panel.

To fill its preschool program, Remington Elementary School sent staff members to visit parents at home and distributed fliers in English and Spanish at laundromats and other community gathering places, Principal Suzanne Cordova said last week.

The school, which serves a poor, largely Hispanic population, 40 percent of whom are learning English, draws parents in with parent education and English classes and sponsors well-attended monthly breakfasts with the principal for bilingual parents.

"We can't just provide services," Ms. Cordova said. "We have to listen. From listening to the parents at those meetings, we know now that they want a better understanding of the purpose of their children's homework. Now we can work out a way to respond."

Schools, the commission says, must also create environments where children's native languages are treated not as a handicap, but an opportunity to promote bilingualism.

Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University professor of education who specializes in the education of language-minority children, welcomed the report's emphasis on the value of children's native language. He said it is important to design good dual-language transition programs for children from Spanish-speaking homes as they move into school.

"We can't treat this as an either-or situation, either English only or bilingual education," Mr. Hakuta said. "It's important to recognize both the value of a child's native language and also the reality and the importance of English."

But Linda Chavez, the director of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that has been critical of bilingual education, said schools are "foolhardy" to encourage students to enhance their native languages before they have mastered English.

Ms. Chavez also said that by failing to point out that native-born Hispanics have significantly higher educational attainment than immigrants, the commission's report suggests that American schools have failed Hispanics more profoundly than they actually have.

Federal, Business Roles

According to the panel, the federal government can help raise Hispanic youngsters' prospects by expanding the availability of early-childhood programs such as Head Start, setting up one-stop family-resource centers in Hispanic communities, supporting programs that increase students' awareness of career and college options, expanding levels of college financial aid, and using its high profile to spotlight the value of a multilingual workforce.

The report says the private sector can help by providing high- quality child care at parents' workplaces, encouraging employees to enroll their children in early-childhood programs, supporting school-based family- resource centers, and offering employees information about parenting. Businesses can also sponsor mentoring and internship programs and offer college scholarships, the report suggests.

As just two examples of the kind of private-sector help it advocates, the panel points to Univision, the Spanish- language television network, which has begun a public-service campaign to urge Hispanic youths to get an education, and World Duty Free Americas Inc., a Ridgefield, Conn.-based company that has begun a pilot program to recruit and train Hispanic youngsters for careers in accounting, law, or employee relations and to support their college educations.

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Pages 1,13

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