Luis Ponjuan is an assistant professor and the director of the Florida Institute of Higher Learning at the University of Florida. His research focuses on access and equity in higher education.
To researchers Victor Saenz and Luis Ponjuan the educational crisis facing young Latino males is one that is not widely understood or acknowledged.
"We characterize this as a continuing stealth issue," Saenz said. "Many are still unaware of this gender gap. It's very much a silent crisis."
The gender gap to which Saenz refers is between young Hispanic males and young Hispanic females in terms of educational achievement. It's been building, Saenz and Ponjuan said, over the last 20 years to the point the statistical differences are striking.
Among Latinos enrolling in college, 61 percent are women and 39 percent are men. Latino males in 2009 received 37 percent of the Associate of Arts degrees granted by community colleges nationwide to students of Hispanic heritage. And Latino males
Still, Saenz said, "There remain skeptics and naysayers about the utility of even looking at this issue and focusing on men or men of color or specifically Latino males and part of that, I think, may stem from the way that gender equity in this country has traditionally debated."
To make his points, Saenz uses two fictional characters: Jose Luis, a first generation Cuban immigrant living in the Midwest, and Carlos, a second generation Mexican American born in South Texas to immigrant parents.
What types of elementary schools might they encounter? "We know that they tend to be overcrowded and overrun by years of neglect. There's certainly a major need for expansion of new elementary schools as the result of the continuing influx of not only immigrant but native born Latinos around the country…especially in areas of the country where Latinos haven't traditionally been, whether it be in the Deep South, places like Atlanta, North Carolina or the Midwest," Saenz said.
"On the instruction and leadership side, those elementary schools tend to have very, very high teacher turn over and in fact, more than 80 percent…of the country'selementary school teacher corps are white females. That's a profound characteristic of elementary schools especially at those early grades…It's not to say at all that somehow Latino teachers are going to be the problem solvers
One way to address the gender gap is to restructure classrooms and curriculum, to emphasize learning through technology while recognizing that boys and girls learn differently, Saenz said.
Another way is to support Latino males who want to become elementary school teachers, "especially in addressing this social stigma that exists around adult males expressing a desire to work with young children."
Saenz said boys like Carlos and Jose Luis are "more likely to enter the early grade levels with limited reading and writing skills. Girls are more likely than boys to have attended pre-school…As a result they do come a little more prepared for those early grade levels. They seem to be having a much easier time getting along with teachers, getting noticed and allotted for good work…It's become so common place that boys are kind muddling through in those early grade levels now, and girls are excelling." "By the time boys like Jose Luis and Carlos get to the third grade, they're an average of a year to a year and a half behind girls in reading and writing skills, about equal in math and this based on federal data. In the classroom, they're struggling to learn how to read. They're struggling to learn how to express themselves and their needs and also struggling, by the way, to understand what it means to be a young man in this society, where our gender roles and norms, behaviors, etc., are constantly being renegotiated."
At this point in their educational careers, young males might be confronted with "the boy code," a set of often-times "unspoken messages, socialization processes, whatever you want to call it, that we impart into our young boys. Messages like to be independent, to not ask for help, to be strong, to not show or exhibit any kind of weakness, to not show emotion, to be ashamed if indeed any of these things may befall you."
Saenz said parents and teachers need to recognize this is happening. "So we've got to raise awareness among all of us about how we are socializing our young boys. Perhaps even work to pro- actively construct these nurturing safe space kind of environments where we can teach our boys that it is okay to ask for help, to raise a hand and say, 'You know what teacher I'm really having a hard time reading this or writing this', and I'm talking about those early—we're not even talking about middle school and high school.
We're talking about early grade levels still."
When that recognition and subsequent help doesn't come, the boys might act out and be labeled as discipline problems or learning disabled, Saenz said. He noted the boys are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
By the time they reach middle school Jose Luis and Carlos are likely to have been labeled "at risk."
"They develop very poor teacher/student relationships. They increasingly see the teacher as the enemy. They're feeling more and more stigmatized for being singled out as not smart, and again we're talking about those early adolescent years when your peers can be the harshest critics."
Peer pressure builds in middle school which might result in a young Latino male reciting an increasingly common defense mechanism: "Well, you know, I don't want to be smart. That's action white," said Saenz. smart. That's action white," said Saenz.
By the time they get to high school, Jose Luis and Carlos are likely to attend schools with high percentages of racial and ethnic minorities which will have high teacher and administrator turnover.
High school drop-outs will hit an estimated 50 percent, although the official numbers from the Department of Education place it at 25 percent, still 7 percentage points higher than for Latinas.
Many young men may also feel pressure to help the family, limiting opportunities to go to college, Saenz said.
If they do get to college, "we know the family unit plays a major role in the adjustment process and being able to cope with the new stressors they may be dealing with within a college environment."
Saenz said Latinas generally come to college better prepared and more motivated.
"The body of literature on Latinas in higher education is much more significant. In particular, they point to the role of self efficacy; that is the type of motivation and self esteem many of these young women are expressing and exhibiting once they get to college. They come to college with much higher degree of aspirations than the young men, and I think what we ought to take from this is that there's a lot to be learned about the success of Latinas are achieving not only in the K-12 system, but also in higher education."
If the crisis in Latino males isn't addressed, Saenz said, "It may be that the gap continues to grow and we'll develop a permanent underclass of Latino males in this country."
How to attack the issues
For his part of the presentation, Saenz's research collaborator, Luis Ponjuan, offered a "blueprint" to achieve educational excellence.
"How do we do this? We start off with a vision. We need to start developing a connective network of individuals and organizations. We need to access and dedicate the available resources to do this work. We need to develop benchmarks for success. And we need to educate and inform key stakeholders."
Ideas from the audience
In an interactive session with symposium participants, Ponjuan asked what they believed should be be the next efforts to attack the Latino male educational crisis. Here are the responses:
1.Showcase best models based on our cultural strengths and find funding to replicate programs.
2.Commit ourselves to the Latino education paradigm. Time is now.
3.Help families, school leaders understand the issues swirling around Latino males and help make a change. Do it now. No more waiting.
4.Collaborate with media and policy makers to get the research information, data to those who can affect macro change and the communities that need the info.
5.Form a national coalition using like-minded Latino groups and allies to advance access to address this crisis.
6.Promote ethnic studies programs.
7.Focus on civic engagement of Latino's youth. Promote culturally appropriate programs for youth and parents. Collaboratively learn from each other.
8.Need more Latino teachers and managers that get it from programs that work with parents and youth.
9.Agree on top three priorities to move the solution forward. What can we do now and get that funded?
10.Identify proven practices and incorporate them to meet these critical needs in a united effort.
11.Continue to look at our youth and help them to find their full potential.
12.Focus our efforts in order to create a platform that disseminates information on best practices.
13.Identify ongoing efforts and advice on issues.
14..Package the presentation of these two days and take it on the road to educate policy makers and community to commit to change nationwide. A road show. Ponjuan and Saenz, who are expanding their research in a study that will follow Latino males for 12 years in Florida, Texas and California, have their own set of suggestions:
1."We should have a philanthropic organization. Create a non-profit organization focused on Latino youth as a philanthropic outreach," Ponjuan said.
2. "We want to develop a sustainable network of Latino scholars and community leaders via a website…Let's do something about creating a professional network."
3. "Create a public national forum. Develop a national professional conference on Latino access and degree attainment that cuts across organizations. Too many times we have conversations about education that don't allow K-12 and higher education folks to be in the same room. We need to stop that and we need to also include researchers, policy makers, student affairs advisors, counselors, Latino leaders, families and community leaders as part of this national forum.," Ponjuan said.
4."We have to create a legacy for our passion. It's not enough for just enough to be passionate about this we need to create the next generation. We need to think about ways that we can sustain our respective efforts beyond our own careers…This is not about us, but the work that continues 20 to 30 years beyond our time. If we're not investing in the future of the next generation then it's going to die with us. We need to recognize the legacy of our passion and invest in it,"
5."Finally, awareness into action—a life is waiting. You need to understand that this silent crisis is real in the Latino male educational pathways. You need to believe and have hope that we can improve Latino male educational success, and finally you need to act. We need to do something. Commit to Latino male educational excellence."