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White House Renews Attention to Hispanic Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 19, 2010 4 min read
President Barack Obama signs the Executive Order on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics on Oct. 19 at the White House.

The Obama administration has renewed its commitment to key priorities in the education of Hispanic students, including reduction of the dropout rate, improved connections between pre-K-12 and postsecondary education, and passage of the “DREAM Act,” which would provide a path to legalization for some undocumented students.

All of those topics were touched on at the Oct. 18 White House summit on Hispanic education, hosted by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. The event was the culmination of a listening tour by White House officials over the last 18 months to more than 90 communities that focused on how to improve the education and lives of Latinos.

Today, President Obama signed an executive order to renew the initiative, which was started by an executive order signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. President Obama’s order calls for the establishment of a presidential advisory commission on Hispanic education and a federal interagency working group on how to improve the education and lives of Latinos. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have also signed executive orders to renew the initiative.

The new executive order will also aim to support communities to share best practices in the education of Hispanic students and to strengthen public and private partnerships.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan endorsed the executive order in a conference call with reporters on Oct. 18. “To improve our country’s education system, we have to improve education for all students, but particularly for Hispanics,” he said. He said it was “morally unacceptable” that some Americans aren’t able to earn college degrees because they are ill-prepared for college courses or can’t afford college tuition.

Focus on Success

The education summit, attended by 230 people—including school administrators, college presidents, and Latino advocates—focused on what it would take to get more Hispanics to succeed educationally. One in five of the nation’s public school children is Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Administration officials spent most of their time answering questions, and while they stressed many well-known tenets of the Obama administration’s education agenda, they also were spurred to address issues that have received less public attention.

One example: A few attendees asked the officials to talk about how to build stronger connections between pre-K-12 schooling and postsecondary education.

Diana Natalicio, the president of the University of Texas at El Paso, asked Carmel Martin, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, to support federal policy that would make it possible for students who work toward associate degrees while still in high school to get financial aid to pay for college tuition. She said she’d had to privately raise the money to pay for the college tuition for 65 such students this school year because the students aren’t eligible for federal Pell grants while in high school.

Ms. Martin answered that the Secretary Arne Duncan is a “huge fan” of the early-college model, and that the Obama administration is looking into how the financial aid issue might be addressed without a change in law. She said the administration’s blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would create a “college-pathways fund to provide postsecondary content at the secondary level.”

Ray M. Keck, III, the President of Texas A&M International University, in Laredo, a city on the U.S.-Mexico border, pressed federal officials to go beyond only speaking in favor of bilingualism—students’ being able to speak two languages—and to be more aggressive in actually supporting dual-language education programs in schools. “Can’t we be brave enough to take on dual-language?” he asked.

“Stay tuned,” said Juan Sepulveda, executive director of the initiative.

Dropout Prevention

Another summit attendee asked what the Obama administration is doing at the middle school level to focus on students who might drop out of school. “We know that students drop out in the 9th grade. What do we do before that?” she asked.

Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, agreed that “by the end of 9th grade, if a student doesn’t have those credits [needed to stay on track to graduate], they’re gone.” She said the administration would like to see reauthorization of the ESEA include a provision to strengthen the teaching of literacy, math, and science at the middle school level.

The discussion also turned at one point to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act, which was first introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2001, but has never been passed. If approved, the legislation would provide a path to legalization for undocumented youths who meet certain criteria and serve in the military or attend college for at least two years.

For Secretary Duncan, the need for passage of that act is a “no-brainer,” said Gabriella Gomez, the assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs. “He doesn’t understand why it hasn’t been done yet. You have a strong advocate in the secretary and the president to get this done,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as White House Renews Attention to Hispanic Education

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