There is a high school dropout crisis in the Latino community but Dr. Elizabeth Molina Morgan, the executive director of the Grad Nation campaign for America’s Promise Alliance, argues that more collaboration with national organizations, more concentration on early childhood education, and a better effort in tracking student achievement can change things now.

There are profound and positive changes taking place among Latinos in America today. We represent the fastest-growing and largest minority population in the country. Over the past decade the number of Latinos has increased nearly 50 percent in the United States with one in every four children in America being Latino. Latino students now represent the largest and fastest-growing minority student population in the public schools.

With big changes come big challenges. While there is a great deal of diversity in background and socio-economic status among Latinos, the reality is that too many Latino youth are not graduating from high school.

GRAD NATION REPORT: One in Three Latinos Fail to Graduate High School

In 2009, the national high school graduation rate was 75 percent; however, among Latinos the likelihood of graduating is closer to one in two, with less than 65 percent graduating on time. While overall rates have increased over the last several years, Latinos continue to lag significantly behind their White and Asian peers. With the latest Census numbers predicting Latinos will make up one-third of the U.S. population by 2050, their impact on our nation’s future success is undeniable. However, if we don’t address Latino dropout rates, it could be detrimental. The time has come for us to roll up our sleeves and enact a plan to reverse this trend and ensure that Latino students in America graduate from high school ready for college, work and life.

The key to addressing this crisis is through collaboration.  There are a few noteworthy education efforts, such as the Hispanic Education Coalition, which is co-chaired by the National Council of La Raza, League of United Latin American Citizens and 26 other organizations dedicated to improving the educational opportunities for the nearly 50 million Latinos in the United States and Puerto Rico.  Similarly, Univision Communications Inc. (part of Univision Network) launched “¡Edúcate! Es el momento,” a multi-year campaign aimed at improving academic achievements among K-12 Hispanic students with a specific focus on high school graduation and college readiness. Meanwhile, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation is focused on preparing and providing access to opportunities for young Latinos in community service, education and the workforce. Finally, in 2010, America’s Promise Alliance launched Grad Nation to end the high school dropout crisis and prepare young people for college and the 21st century workforce.

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These are all national initiatives that are taking place sometimes simultaneously, but not necessarily in coordination with each other. We could make an argument that a problem this serious requires that everyone, regardless of background or interests, combine their resources, experience and expertise to support this work. Luckily, America’s Promise Alliance’s Grad Nation campaign has a template that can guide the conversation and coordinate something similar for the Latino community.

We should start by making clear, measurable and achievable goals. For example, our goal is that by 2020, high school graduation rates for those in 3rd grade today would be 90 percent nationally.  

The Latino community is the youngest and fastest-growing community in the United States. Securing the economic prosperity of this nation will depend greatly on how prepared and educated this community is moving forward.

Another component of the plan is to identify and target the states and school districts with the biggest dropout rates, especially those affecting the Latino community. The plan would focus on their feeder elementary and middle schools and associated alternative schools and establish initial benchmarks that will help them achieve the national goal. The good news is we know who these schools are and where they are located.

The dropout crisis does not start in high school. If this plan is to be successful, we need to address early childhood education. Only 40 percent of Latino children ages three to five are enrolled in early education programs, whereas 64 percent of African-American children and 59 percent of white children are enrolled. Studies have shown that Latino children who attend high-quality early education programs showed greater academic gains than their African American and White peers. Overall, Latino children who experienced high-quality early education increased test scores by 54 percent and those who participated in full school-day early education programs improved test scores by 73 percent.

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Unfortunately, Hispanic families are the least likely of any group to send children to public preschool education programs, due in part to parental education, language barriers, low socioeconomic status and lack of program access. We must change this immediately through public education campaigns and increasing access for Latino families by supporting public-private partnerships in early education operating in the communities where Latinos live and work.

We can’t increase graduation rates if we don’t know how our students are doing.  Tracking student achievement and linking the data to other key systems in state such as child welfare, juvenile justice and mental health is essential so schools can respond effectively to both at-risk and highly motivated students.  Moreover, setting high expectations, developing a rigorous curriculum and engaging coursework connected to student interests and a 21st century economy, are critical to academic achievement.  The expectations and confidence of teachers in their students’ abilities to learn and the teachers’ beliefs in their capacity to effectively teach have shown powerful effects in boosting student achievement.

We cannot end the nation’s dropout crisis without improving outcomes for Latino students. We know what needs to be done and if we combine our efforts, we have the resources and support to make a significant impact in the success trajectory of Latinos in this country. We can’t wait. The time to do something is now.

Elizabeth Molina Morgan is the executive director of the Grad Nation campaign for America’s Promise Alliance. On March 19, America’s Promise Alliance will unveil the nation’s latest graduation figures in its 2012 Building A Grad Nation Report.

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