Hispanics' long quest for fair treatment in schools

United States Hispanics, who long have sought a responsive chord from public schools, didn't need the recent flurry of education reports to tell them that US schools were failing their young.

''We've been saying that for years. It's just now that the majority population is affected that attention is being devoted to the problem,'' says Stanford University assistant provost Cecelia Preciado Burciaga.

A group with virtually half its population under age 21, Hispanics view education as a highly critical matter - and feel that their educational progress has been hampered by a variety of problems. Says Mrs. Burciaga: ''There is a massive hemorrhage of Hispanic talent in the educational pipeline.''

The school dropout figures bear her out. The rates reach crisis proportions in some parts of the country. Mrs. Burciaga participated in a 1981 study, Chicanos in Higher Education Progress and Entertainment, done for the Higher Education Research Institute in Los Angeles. The study shows that only 55 percent of Mexican-Americans graduate from high school. Of those, only 22 percent go on to college. Seven percent of that group actually graduate. Only 4 percent of them go on to graduate and professional schools, from which only 2 percent graduate.

At the Hispanic Policy Project in Washington, D.C., Ray Valdivieso, director of education programs, says that the Hispanic dropout rate fluctuates from one community to another and varies from 45 to 80 percent. The Mexican-American dropout rate is put at 45 percent. In New York, Puerto Ricans are said to leave school at a rate of 50 percent; some say that rate is much higher. In Boston, the figure climbs to 80 percent. Cuban students leave US schools at the rate of 18 to 20 percent, but that figure is climbing, says Mr. Valdivieso.

Unfortunately, even getting an accurate picture of the situation is a problem for Hispanics. According to Rafael Magallon, director of the Hispanic Higher Education Coalition in Washington, data collection by the federal government is a real problem, with cutbacks coming under the guise of reducing paper work. His advocacy group is seeking ''data collection with more specificity on elementary and secondary education on a national scale.''

Mr. Magallon is not alone in his opinion that more data is needed. Norma Cantu, education director of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) in San Francisco is critical of ''A Nation at Risk,'' the report produced by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. ''It is clear,'' she says, ''that equity has not been considered. The report falsely assumes that all schools have equal resources with which to provide excellent education. That , in fact, is not true.''

Hispanics have long sought ''equitable and fair treatment'' from the schools, Ms. Cantu states. If progress can be measured by change, it would appear that in some areas Hispanics have seen little of that. They brought their first segregation case during the 1940s, says Ms. Cantu. It was a Texas case - way before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed school segregation.

Some 40 years later, a report by the National Center for Education Statistics cited figures indicating that two-thirds of the 3 million Hispanic schoolchildren were in schools ''comprised predominantly of minority students. Over 30 percent attended schools in which minority students comprised 90 to 100 percent of total school enrollment.''

For Rosa Castro Feinberg, director of the National Origin Desegregation Assistance Center at the University of Miami, the reform reports offer a mandate. ''I read all of this education reform (aimed at raising) graduation standards as a mandate to expand, augment, and perfect what I consider to be quality bilingual education . . . .'' That is a conclusion, she continues, based on the legal guideline that it is not proper to deny education on the basis of national origin or language.

''Unless provisions are made to assure that language-limited students have access to progress or minimum competency in education, a grave injustice will be done to minority students,'' she continues. ''Hispanics are a growing population , and our labor force will become even more minority in the future. It doesn't serve society to eradicate, eliminate, or diminish their contributions because of limitations in English-language proficiency.''

ufdropHispanic educators say a number of things are needed before progress can be made. Among them: textbooks with current Hispanic usage; well-rounded curriculums with healthy doses of math and science; teachers trained to work effectively with Hispanic youth who may or may not be language-limited; well-stocked libraries; and decent facilities. Those are not radical expectations, says one; they are what most parents want for their children.

''Computers,'' says one expert, ''will be the next equity issue.'' At MALDEF, Ms. Cantu says, efforts are being devoted to the development of business-school partnerships to make certain that Hispanic students are computer literate.

Beatrice Arias, assistant professor of education at Stanford, just completed a survey of 30 high schools in 10 California districts. What she found validates what others say: The computers and the programs for computer literacy, some in very well-stocked and elaborate settings, are not in the schools attended by large concentrations of Hispanics.

An educator who molds future teachers, she also views teacher preparation as critical for Hispanics. ''We don't have teachers adequately trained to teach our children.'' But teachers are just one of her chief concerns. She adds that student retention and the tracking of Hispanic students into less demanding curriculums because they are not perceived as capable in the more rigorous math and science fields are issues that need to be addressed.

Francisco D. Sanchez Jr., superintendent of the Albuquerque, N. M., schools served on the National Commission for Excellence in Education. He says ''It is true that our report neglected to deal with minority group issues because of our belief that we all live in one major culture and our view that education eases the tension for the subculture to live in that society.''

He agrees that it would be much easier for a well-to-do school district to achieve the goals outlined in the report. ''What it does suggest, however, is that poorer school districts must seek alternatives,'' he adds. One of those could be equalized funding for all schools. But that is a political issue which must be addressed by voters. The alternative to the issue of resources is to explore education consortia, in which schools could team up to achieve their goals by sharing what they have. In addition, he adds, schools can establish priorities for their goals and concentrate on the most basic ones.

On one point, all agree. There is a tremendous need for Hispanics to sit on school policymaking boards. After all, that is where the force of policy and dollar-power rests. Because of their lack of representation in these seats of power, Hispanics feel they do not have an equal voice in decisionmaking, says Ms. Cantu.

The representation issue suggests voter registration and participation in elections. ''But it also means breaking the hold of 'packing, stacking, and cracking' - shorthand for the varied districting tactics utilized over the years to diffuse and limit Hispanic voting power,'' she adds.

No one argues over the importance of the involvement of parents in the education of their young. That is a given. As Valdivieso puts it: ''What we've found is that schools that have done a good job have good parental involvement.''

Sanchez, as school administrator, couldn't agree more, and he is willing to concede that the schools have not always done enough to invite that participation from Hispanic parents. But he hopes a pilot project initiated in his school district this year will go a long way in ''marrying the home and the school, which is so very vital.''

Focusing on some of the poorer schools in his district, the project brings three- and four-year-old youngsters into a kindergarten program that operates two or three mornings a week, depending on the age group. But to promote parental involvement in the school and the project, one parent from each home is required to spend one session a week in the classroom as a teacher's aide.

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