Hispanic family ties are cause and cure of dropout dilemma

Lisa Delgado sits quietly, hands clasped over a stack of neatly covered books, at a low, round table in the counselor's office of Fox Technical High School. As the high school senior discusses her firsthand knowledge of the country's Hispanic dropout problem, she makes up for her lack of intensity in voice and presence with the stark solemnity of her words. ``What inspired me to stay in school? My brother dropped out when he was in ninth grade. He works on and off, but he causes us a lot of problems,'' she says, pausing at length before going on. ``Basically I want to please my parents, but I want to please myself at the same time.''

Lisa Delgado's experience suggests something about the relationship of the Hispanic family to the fact that 45 percent of Hispanic youths never graduate from high school. In a culture long typified by strong, multigenerational family ties, the Hispanic family is both part of the problem and part of the solution.

During recent interviews at two San Antonio high schools -- Fox Tech, an inner-city school, and Jefferson High School, an expansive campus populated by students from all economic backgrounds -- Hispanic senior class students most often cited strong family support when asked what factors were important in helping them stay in school.

On the other hand, other long-held traditions among Hispanics often throw roadblocks in the paths of students -- especially those who may already be having trouble mastering the English language.

Educators working with Hispanic students here say expectations that teen-agers will hold down a regular job, and the fading yet sometimes still strongly held tradition that women are to be provided for, are examples of how family traditions can discourage staying in school. Since many Hispanic parents never graduated from high school, their own ignorance of what it takes to succeed in school can also hurt their children, these educators say.

As the nation's most Hispanic major city, San Antonio is a logical place to look at the problem of Hispanic dropouts. It is the 10th-largest city in the United States, and roughly half of its nearly 1 million residents are Hispanic. It's a city that likes to think of itself as bicultural, where Hispanics are well woven into the fabric of business, social, and cultural life. San Antonio's mayor, Henry Cisneros, is one of the country's best-known Hispanics.

Despite this, nothing suggests that this high degree of integration has made for any fewer dropouts here. The contrary is probably true.

Lucille Santos, assistant superintendent for pupil services of the San Antonio Independent School District, admits that statistics are ``near useless,'' because ``the numbers [of dropouts] are much higher than what they show.''

Stella Sanders, senior class adviser at Fox Tech, says that when she started with her group of freshmen four years ago, she had 700 advisees. Today that same group has fallen to 350 seniors. And while she says much of the decrease is the result of students transferring to other districts, a nearly 50-percent dropout rate among Hispanics nationwide suggests that most of the 350 students who dropped from Ms. Sanders's files probably never saw another school.

A recent report published by the National Commission on Secondary Schooling for Hispanics points out that cities like San Antonio could be in trouble economically if large numbers of Hispanic students continue to drop out of school -- not only before they graduate, but many (nearly half of those who drop out) before they finish the 10th grade.

It's a point that warrants consideration across the country as Hispanics -- the youngest and fastest-growing population group in the US -- increase in number to between 25 million and 30 million, or about 11 percent of the total population, by the year 2000.

Anthony Sanchez, an honors student at Fox, states without hesitation that ``especially for Hispanics, I think family involvement can make or break education.'' Because of traditionally strong interdependence among family members, he says, what parents and grandparents believe holds great weight.

``If they don't care [about school],'' he says, ``the feeling is, `Why should I?' '' As courses become tougher, he adds, ``it starts to sound better each day to just forget school and work full time.''

Many Hispanic families expect teen-agers to hold down part-time jobs, at least, to help with family expenses. ``Traditionally in the Hispanic family, a child has been expected to contribute financially once he or she reached the teens,'' says Dr. Santos. ``It's hard to get away from this.''

Lisa Delgado, for example, works 26 hours a week in a neighborhood grocery store. ``I work to help out my family,'' she says, ``but also for myself.'' She adds that since she works ``only'' every other day and Saturdays, ``I still usually have enough time to study.''

Even for Hispanic students who feel no need to contribute to the family till, the ``work ethic'' holds true. Josephine Gutierrez, senior counselor at Jefferson, says she believes many students who work only for their own material comfort are harming their education.

``It's my feeling that about 75 percent of them would be better off spending more time on their education,'' she says, adding that most of the Jefferson students -- better off, in general, than those attending Fox Tech -- are working ``so they can have more -- more and fancier clothes, a better car, and to keep up the dating.''

Ms. Gutierrez, whose desk and walls are covered with photos of students she says proudly ``have made it despite some pretty hard times,'' says she has a particular interest in seeing young Hispanic women stay in school.

``I really encourage the girls to think in terms of supporting themselves,'' she says, adding that ``even if the Hispanic woman has come a long way,'' her culture still retains a strong ``macho'' streak. And because of what she calls a ``flux,'' Hispanics are experiencing the same family instability of other groups. This makes education for women is that much more important, she says.

Marisela Sosa, a senior at Jefferson, says much of her impetus to do well in school has come from her mother. ``She was raised in a family where only the males were educated, so she wanted more for me,'' she says. ``She's impressed upon me that you cannot always be dependent on a husband, especially today.''

The students say they believe there are steps schools can take to help discourage dropping out. More regular counseling during the middle grades is one suggestion, and more peer tutoring to make sure faltering students have regular contact with hardworking, motivated students.

Patty Miller, whose mother is Hispanic, is a former dropout at Fox Tech who came back and will graduate this spring, ``thanks to my parents and Ms. Sanders.'' Miss Miller says a call-in radio show featuring her and other students who had surmounted difficulties to stay in school was a success. ``I was surprised how many students said they were really helped by it.''

But perhaps most important, the students call for involving Hispanic parents in their children's education. It's a point that professionals have made increasingly of late, but which takes on additional validity when emphasized by the students themselves.

``The kids who might drop out need encouragement and help,'' says John Ortiz of Jefferson High. ``Maybe more with Hispanics than other kids, that means bringing the family and school together.'' --

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