Juan Sepulveda is director of the White Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanic Americans. He directs White House efforts at improving academic achievement among Latinos.

As President Obama's point man for efforts to improve Latino educational achievement, Juan Sepulveda is very familiar with the numbers and the challenges.

There are more than 52 million Hispanics in the United States, including the 4 million in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Currently, 21 percent of the nation's K-12 students are Latino. Among pre-school age children, the percentage of Hispanic children is even greater, one out of four.

But among those pre-schoolers, fewer than half of the children are enrolled in early learning programs.

"No other group is anywhere below 50 percent. Most of them are 10 to 12 points higher in terms of participation levels. We all know how important early learning is. Research shows it. We know it from our own experiences," said Sepulveda, a longtime executive in the nonprofit world and a Rhodes Scholar.

"What that means is our kids are showing up to kindergarten and they're already behind."

The dilemma of the country's fast-growing Hispanic population and its lagging

academic achievement hasn't been lost on President Obama, who has set a goal of 2020 for America to once again have the highest percentage of its population to have a degree beyond high school. The U.S., formerly number one in the world in with the highest percentage of its population with post-secondary degrees, now ranks 12th. It is 18th in the world in terms of high school graduation.

"We've taken a tumble," Sepulveda said.

It doesn't stop there. Of the top 30 countries in the world, the U.S. has fallen to 21st in science literacy; top science students from the U.S. are now ranked 13th; the U.S. is 25th in math literacy; and in terms of highest performing students, the U.S. is now ranked 23rd, Sepulveda said.

Virtually none of those numbers can change without improved academic achievement by Latinos.

"The future of the United States is inextricably linked to the future of the Latino community. It cannot happen without us," Sepulveda said. "Our best estimates are that we're going to need about 8.2 million more graduates, community college graduates, four-year university graduates to hit the President's 2020 goal. We've estimated we're probably going to need another 3.7 million high school graduates during that same timeframe to make sure our kids are on the path to hit the 2020 goal. You cannot hit either one of those without us really increasing our numbers."

The emphasis is going to have to start early in pre-school programs that attract more Latino children, Sepulveda said.

"We know that we have to switch things. For us it's two words. It's about access and quality. As the President has said a million times…good quality early childhood learning is not sticking in a video in front of a bunch of kids and saying that's it and keeping you entertained for a little bit. We know in our community it's both about access to programs, but it's also about quality."

Any improvement there means the work has only started.

"At the K-12 level, our best estimates are that about half of our kids are dropping out and are not getting through high school graduation; of the half who are graduating, only half of them are actually ready to go to college…You got your diploma and you're ready to go to college, but you show up to college and you're not ready to do college level math. You're not ready to do college level English, science," Sepulveda said.

The numbers drop more at the college level, Sepulveda said.

"We are no longer the largest group when it comes to college. We have the biggest potential set of numbers, but there are just few of us going to college. Probably about 2.2 million if you include both full-time and part-time," Sepulveda said. "Most of us, more than half of us are starting at the community college. The community college is a really important place for us, because we're not going to college, but if we do that's where we go first.

Then it's a tricky part to go from community college to the four-year university. The transfer rates are a real big issue for us."

Only 13 percent of Latinos in the U.S. get bachelor's degrees. And only 4 percent have degrees beyond a bachelor's.

"We're doing the worst of all the groups in terms of where we are right now. We've got a long way to go," Sepulveda said.

The question now is what works, what programs or policies around the country that are working.

One approach that breaks the mold but that is also controversial in the Latino community is establishment of programs and schools that are focusing on Latino males because some feel Latinas will be short-changed.

"There are so many times where we think about targeting and focusing on Latino males that that equals hurting Latinas. That if we focus solely on males, that means we're " going to stop focusing on Latinas, that somehow it's a competition between the two and we know the answer is that's crazy. This is not a zero sum. This is about an expanding pie."

In fact, he said in a number of community all-girl Latina schools, often focusing on science and math where women still lag in comparison with men, are having great results. Parallel all-boy Latino schools are being created

"but that are a little bit broader. It's not about science and math but it's about a bigger set of factors…that really look at strong adult presence in their lives…a lot of different standards and getting them prepared to go to college, higher expectations."

That model breaks with educational orthodoxy but Sepulveda said, "one of the thing we've seen around the country is that one size does not fit all. The communities that have gotten smart about this have said, 'we're going to create schools that match the different groups of students who need particular things.'"

"We also tell people the communities who have gotten smart about this don't even talk about drop outs anymore because drop-out is only one way to get out school." Sepulveda said schools must also deal with fade-outs – those who attend occasionally; and push-outs, those who have behavioral problems and those who are pushed out just before students are to take state-based tests.

"When you think about it from life events, fadeouts, push outs and drop outs, you can imagine the different kinds of schools that are getting created to really attack very different sets of problems."

Sepulveda said part of the solution also rests with strengthening public/private partnerships, including with faith-based schools.

"The old notion that there's one way of doing it…those days are gone. We know that within our community there is a deep history there. There's a model that we've seen for a long time and that's Catholic schools. If you look around the country there are a lot of communities where Catholic schools have stepped in on the single sex side to do that kind of piece as well."

"Once again we think as an administration we have to get passed this old idea of public and private and saying good schools and ineffective schools. From the private schools what can we learn on the public school side? Obviously for us on the government side, it's all about the public schools. What can we learn from the success of the Catholic schools that have allowed them to thrive? Strong parental involvement. High expectations."

Sepulveda said private businesses are increasingly stepping to establish partnerships with schools, companies like IBM in New York which is working to start a new school that's going to teach grades 9 – 14, which the first two years of college.

At the same time, Sepulveda said individuals are trying new ways to reach disadvantaged students. He pointed to Danny King, the superintendent of schools of the Pharr-Alamo-San Juan Independent School District in Texas in which he established new work requirements for counselors. Instead of stopping with guidance at high school graduation, the counselors are now required to follow students for six years to make sure they get through their first two years of college.

"He says as a superintendent he does not want to be judged on his graduation rate from high school. He wants to know how many of them finish college," Sepulveda said.

Latino males are also in need of role models in the classroom where fewer than 2 percent of the nation's K-12 teachers are Latino males. Sepulveda said that with retiring baby boomers, there are going to be openings for at least a million teaching jobs in the next five to six years.

He said Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have launched a new teacher recruitment campaign that includes a heavy emphasis on diversifying the teacher corps.

"Every time I run into Arne, he says the same thing to me. 'Find me Latino teachers and I need, in particular, Latino male teachers. For Arne and the President, this is what they're thinking about all the time. We're putting a lot of resources and a huge effort."

"We know at the end of the day it doesn't have to be—the answer is not a Latino teacher is the only one who can teach us. We know that. We're smarter than that. We know that there are other teachers who are going to come into our classrooms…We have to help them become culturally competent to teach in our classrooms so that they understand how we are as a community. We know at the end of the day having a great teacher and having a great principle in our schools is going to be a really important piece, but we know how critical it is as a part of that equation to have more Latino role models."

Discussion/questions from participants


Teachers aren't paid well, work hard. How are you going to get more Latino males to choose teaching as a career?


"What the president has proposed is first a series of financial incentives. What we're offering moving forward is we think you should be paid more if you go to the schools that need you the most. Those are inner city schools, there's going to be some tough rural schools…As second one is…income-based repayments. That's (a) horrible (name) but here's the idea: We want our students to become teachers. We want our kids to become teachers. We want our students to understand how important it is for them to get involved in the community. The President pushed for this income-based repayment idea. Here's what it says. If you take out any loans to go to college and to finish your degree, the amount of money you're going to pay back to us in the government is going to be based on the amount of money you make."


"We've heard the significance of having teachers that relate to the culture. We have a school district in Tucson that's teaching Mexican-American studies and have shown that the graduation rate is very high and the college rate is very high. So the results are there. The results are there, but then we have the (state) government that says you can't do that, so I'm wondering

what the federal government says."


"Some things…we can't force them to do but there are lots of other things that we can do as incentives. One thing is that we have invigorated an Office of Civil Rights…at the Justice Department and Education Department." As to the importance of cultural competencies, "President Obama, Arne Duncan, we have a very crazy, radical idea when it comes to this. Are you ready for this one...We think speaking two languages is a good thing. We know with the global economy it's not just about two, it's three or four."


"My question to you and to Mr. Duncan and the Obama administration is what kind of money is available that you have planned for vocational programs especially if the vocational program has a transfer component attached to it and what is the Obama administration doing to increase (vocational training)?"


"What we've done is we're working out right now a deal between the labor department and the education department to put $2 billion towards strengthening community colleges. It's literally all the things you're talking about, transfer rates, curriculum, all those kind of pieces that are just focused solely on strengthening community colleges."


"I know that President Obama is being attacked on multiple fronts and as an immigrant (advocate) person it's really hard for me to not challenge and question the administrative enforcement policies. At the same time I'm hearing all these wonderful dreams about investing in our community because we are the future, yet the reality on the ground is kids can't study if their parent got deported. Kids can't study and feel like they can achieve if their family that happens to be mixed status family-- 70% of undocumented people have citizen children or resident partners – (isn't whole). Immigration reform is a crucial need and it's the first step in stabilizing Latino communities in order for us to achieve. What your sense and how should we be approaching it?"


"Let me say… you should push us…We think that's important us to really get from folks directly on the ground what they're experiencing…The notion of breaking up families which unfortunately is still happening, but it's happening at smaller levels. The notion of who is getting picked up and deported in terms of priorities is changing…Now you're seeing an emphasis on trying to really get to the folks who are at the highest levels of criminality."


"Well the New York Times published an article…that shows that the new enforcement policies are deporting 60 percent of the non-felon criminals and we know that racial profiling is happening…"


"There's been a challenge to the New York Times, numbers, right, as well. But trust me, you need to let us know, because that's not in line with what we're trying to do."


"I think it's your priorities that are wrong. I haven't seen it to be a priority for you."


"If we're going to be honest about it, you're right. It is not the number one priority. The economy is. I'm going to be honest about it. It is, because we know that the tough times we face economically right now, that is the most important factor. I cannot stand up here and be honest and say immigration should be more important than the jobs side right now. That's not the most important issue for us as a country."