Cronkite Carnegie Initiative

High Latino drop-out rates, low numbers of male Latino teachers as role models and a growing Latino population could spell trouble for America unless these critical issues are addressed, a key Obama administration education official contends.

Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics, said the Obama administration is concerned about what Latino educational underachievement means for the country as whole.

"We really believe that the future of this country is inextricably linked to the future of the Latino community," Sepulveda said. He pointed to U.S. Census estimates that place Latinos as the nation's fastest growing population segment as evidence why educating Latinos must be a high priority for the country.

"If we don't bump things up, we have the potential to create a permanent underclass," Sepulveda said. "We have the potential to create a work force that's not going to be able to do the jobs we're hoping to bring to the country."

Sepulveda made the remarks during his keynote address at the Young Latino Male Symposium at Arizona State University in October. The three-day event was hosted by ASU's Center for Community Development and Civil Rights and included presentations about young Latino males' "failure to thrive" in a 21st Century society. In addition to a high dropout rate – estimated at nearly 50 percent – Sepulveda said the lack of Latino male role models is a major contributing factor to the poor education of young Latino men. Less than 2 percent of the nation's teachers are Latino males.

Sepulveda said that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is aware of the problem and hopes to tackle it.

"For Arne and the president, this is what they're thinking about all the time," Sepulveda said.

And with a new teacher recruitment campaign and record federal funding set aside to revamp the American education system – announced by Duncan in September – Sepulveda said he is hopeful that progress can be made over the long term.

But states like Arizona already have a burgeoning Latino population that needs help now. According to a 2009 study, the State of Latino Arizona, Arizona's Latino population already accounts for 30 percent of the state's population and could exceed a third of the population before 2025.

The median age is young – 25 years old – and birth rates are higher than average, portending dramatic increases in elementary education enrollment. From 1998 to 2008, Latino enrollment in the Arizona's K-12 classrooms grew by 86.3 percent. In 2008, Latino children accounted for roughly 42 percent of Arizona's K-12 enrollment. But according to analyses from organizations such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress and Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, the American education system is failing its Latino population.

Eugene Garcia, vice president of education partnerships at Arizona State University, said the problem -- and part of the answer -- is teachers.

"You really have to have the very best teachers. Start there," Garcia said. "Forty percent of Latino achievement can be accounted for by the teacher they have."

But Garcia also said that the U.S. education system was not ready for such a rapid influx of a minority population.

"You're still having teachers teaching that were trained 20 years ago and they had no idea that the kids they were teaching were not going to be kids from Illinois and Iowa, they're going to be kids from Mexico and kids from Central America," Garcia said. "We need …understanding of those families and we just haven't caught up to it. And we have to move fast to do that because they're here."

Add this to a heightened fervor surrounding immigration issues in Arizona and politics enter the classroom.

"In a state like Arizona, you certainly get the anti-immigrant climate so the kids aren't only getting that likely at school but they're also getting it in the general community," Garcia said.

Garcia said the current political climate of in Arizona is prompting Latino families to move away from the state and in some cases, leave adolescent males behind with extended family or neighbors so they can finish school.

This, he says, has created further problems with continuing education of male Latinos.

"The tension basically has generated a class of adolescents who are likely not now connected to the core central family but are living, in some respects, primarily to go to school but they have no support systems," he said.

In these cases, Latino male role models are even more important, Garcia said..

"The idea of the mentor is to essentially try to give the student an alternative vision of the future," Garcia said.

He pointed to the success of programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, in which mentoring is leading to success stories in 40 to 50 Arizona schools.

"Unfortunately, this stuff doesn't start at 9th grade, it starts probably 6th, 7th, and 8th grade where kids need this alternative vision, they need a mentor," Garcia said.

"They need a teacher who guides them, they need a roadmap."

And the problem, he says, is that Latino children do not have someone at home who has navigated the education system.

"You may have this map but you don't have anybody who's negotiated it," Garcia said.

Another successful program is Puente, which focuses on language and literacy, in which students are linked up with successful professionals. In both programs, the idea is to provide a positive role models who can help students navigate life.

Ariel Rodriguez, assistant professor at Arizona State University's School of Community Resources and Development, conducts research on behavior, health and life satisfaction of younger populations.

"It's really critical for these young individuals to see somebody within their community succeed," Rodriguez said. "Especially if you're from a specific culture and all you

see is individuals not succeeding, or succeeding in something that's not a positive thing that's not going to contribute to society." Rodriguez, who focuses much of his research on the benefits of organized recreational activities, said role models provide guidance about life decisions outside the academic environment.

"It allows them to be kids and individuals and experience sort of the trials that they normally would have in a very safe environment," Rodriguez said. "Also with an individual that can tell them, 'you know this is not appropriate behavior, or this is more appropriate behavior,' in helping them and guiding them."

Rodriguez said he has seen a decline of in-school physical education programs, which has led to a privatization of recreation activities. He said these programs should be more closely aligned with the schools.

"If we remove (physical education) within schools, we remove the afterschool programs, and we just sort of let them go home – we tend to see a lot of other issues happen," Rodriguez said. "And most likely they'll end up deviating to other activities that are probably not the best for them." Like Sepulveda, Rodriguez sees this problem as much more than a Latino dilemma.

"If we look at it from a larger, bigger perspective of the United States, we can't have 'X' amount of our population, whether it's 10 percent of our population, 20 percent of our population, not be graduating high school," Rodriguez said. "We just can't have that as a people if we want to succeed and continue to be the strongest country in the world."

Sepulveda said the initial analysis of the 2010 census data indicates that Latinos are already key to the U.S. work force.

"I think the estimates are, right now, one of every three people who are coming into the work force right now is Latino," he said. "If you don't have one third of your workforce educated, you're in trouble."