SAN ANTONIO — When they were high school juniors, Laura Guzik and Jorge Posadas never saw themselves as college material. Laura hoped for a graduation-day wedding and a houseful of kids. Jorge's goal was a career in auto repair.
The offer of a scholarship for college - theirs for a B average and a near-perfect attendance record - changed all that. Today, Laura is a first-grade teacher. Jorge is a counselor at a local college.
Their story is a bright spot in a problem that has dogged American educators for decades: the high Hispanic dropout rate. Billions of dollars have been poured into everything from bilingual classes to school-based health clinics, yet nearly a third of all Hispanic youths in America leave school without a diploma, according to a recent survey by the US Department of Education.
This failure has some educators looking to create an entirely new classroom culture, one that changes far more than its textbooks. In fact, some experts argue the problem is not that Hispanic students are unfit for school; American schools may be unfit for Hispanic students.
The key may be a focus on group learning - as well as greater parental and church involvement in school affairs. "Hispanic families tend to teach children to respect elders," and often focus on the needs of the group, says Elena Lopez, an education professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
The consequence is that quiet students are often labeled apathetic or insolent. Many end up receiving less attention from teachers than do white peers.
As a result, hundreds of underperforming schools - from East Los Angeles to the Rio Grande Valley - are moving to build on the cultural strengths of their Hispanic communities. If Latino hands aren't rising during question-and-answer time, for example, teachers try to put children into collaborative groups. If Hispanic parents are reluctant to speak out at parent-teacher meetings, or to inquire when their children falter, schools are taking extra steps to make parents feel like partners.
This new tack has found particular success in San Antonio with the help of a broad-based community group called Metro Alliance. Groups affiliated with the Alliance, which was formed in 1989 by parents, principals, businesses, and church leaders, have spread this concept of parent-friendly schooling to 125 elementary, middle, and high schools across the Southwest.
While it is too early to see whether Alliance schools have reduced Hispanic dropout rates overall, a visit to Lamar Elementary on San Antonio's predominantly Hispanic west side shows how Alliance schools are trying to respond effectively to the needs of their community.
In the freshly painted cafeteria, and a sign proclaims this school's newfound ethic: "The Iron Rule: Never ever do for someone else what they can do for themselves."
Here, parents volunteer as reading tutors. They carry petitions door-to-door in the neighborhood, or hold house meetings to discuss upcoming school bond initiatives.
Parent Maribel Lara seems especially grateful for the new Alliance spirit. Small wonder: Once, a previous principal kicked her off school grounds.
"She didn't recognize me, even though I had been a teacher's aide for a year," laughs the dynamic mother of two, who often holds late-night house meetings with neighbors to discuss Lamar after returning from her two housekeeping jobs. "Before, I felt like I was a client. Now, I'm a partner."
Teachers say the proof of the Alliance's effect is in Lamar's reading scores. Two years ago, most of Lamar's second-graders couldn't read at all; now many second-graders are reading at a fifth-grade level. Circulation at the small library has tripled, and kids gather at the library door at 7:30 a.m., waiting for it to open at 8 a.m.
"It's not that the students didn't have the potential," explains Irma Perfecto, Lamar's aptly named new principal. "It's that the expectations were low."
Local church participation in the Alliance has raised some concerns about the separation of church and state. But organizers say churches in San Antonio and elsewhere can bring to public schools the same organizing power that African- American churches brought to the civil rights movement 30 years ago.
"Unlike people in the religious right, we don't want a theocracy," says Ernie Cortez, director of the nonpartisan Texas Industrial Areas Foundation in Austin. "What we are trying to do is recreate civil society and the capacity of adults to exert moral authority in public schools."
Churches are also more likely to stick around long after America's current superintendents have retired or moved on.
"We have a hero culture, so we want somebody to go in there ... and take names," he says with a smile. "But most creative activities take the collaboration of a whole bunch of people."
But while the Alliance aims at changing the long-term culture of schools, San Antonio has seen its most immediate results from the nonprofit Education Partnership scholarship program, which helped Mrs. Guzik and Mr. Posadas.
Nearly 3,000 of the corporate-sponsored scholarships have been awarded since 1989, when the San Antonio-based initiative began. Sixty percent of the recipients are the first in their families to graduate from high school or attend college. Dropout rates for seniors have fallen 10 percent, and the percentage of students who graduate with B averages and good attendance has jumped from 19 percent in 1989 to 50 percent last year.
Discovering a flair
For his part, Posadas says the Education Partnership was the first hint that he might have an academic bone or two in his body.
"That made a big difference. In my senior year, I really buckled down," says Posadas, now a counselor at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. "I surprised so many people, most of all myself."
As a first-grade teacher, Guzik says she can give the sort of advice to parents that she couldn't get at home.
"I tell them, 'In rich schools, the parents read to their children every day, they take them to the museum and the library,' " she says, occasionally pausing to translate for her Spanish-speaking mother, Dora Rendon. "It's not that they don't love their children, they just don't know how to help them learn."
Then, after a long, patient silence, Guzik's mother offers her view of what her daughter's life would have been like without college. (Laura did marry, but not her high school sweetheart.)
"You would have been trapped," says Mrs. Rendon in even tones, "married with children, just making enough to make ends meet." After translating, Guzik smiles: "She's right."