The kids we can't afford to waste

In emphasizing the danger a poorly educated Hispanic population poses for the economic well-being of much of the United States, a recent report on education among Hispanics takes a new tack in efforts to highlight a problem of national scale.

Most of the facts cited in the report, released earlier this month by the National Commission on Secondary Schooling for Hispanics, are well known. It states, for example, that 45 percent of Hispanic youths never graduate from high school; that 40 percent of Hispanic dropouts leave school before the 10th grade; and that a majority of those who do stay in school are tracked into nonacademic courses of study. ''The fundamental finding (of the commission),'' the report says in its introduction, ''is that a shocking proportion of this generation of Hispanic young people is being wasted.''

As tragic as such facts and conclusions are, they are not new. For several years national educators and Hispanic leaders have acted to call attention to the low level of education among Hispanics. Recently concern has grown as an emphasis on ''excellence,'' and tougher standards in state education reforms left educators fearing that poor performance among Hispanics would be exacerbated.

But in an effort to kindle new interest in Hispanic education, the 16-member commission has placed particular emphasis on the dire effects such a national problem will have on all corners of society. Says commission co-chair Paul Ylvisaker, dean emeritus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, ''We decided to make it clear that there are a number of selfish arguments for addressing this issue. The nation has a real selfish interest in making sure we don't lose such an important human resource.''

The report notes, for example, that as the US population in general ages, the country will have to rely increasingly on the growing and younger minority population to fuel the economy, pay taxes, and maintain programs - such as social security - upon which the rest of the population relies. By 1992 the total number of high school graduates will fall by more than one-quarter, to 2.3 million, but the number of potential Hispanic graduates will remain constant at one-third of a million. In Los Angeles they will constitute almost half the high-school-age population in 1995; in San Antonio, almost three-fifths.

The report also points out that Hispanics are increasingly concentrated in poor, inner-city schools. More than two-thirds of the nation's 15 million-plus Hispanics live in California, Texas, New York, and Florida.

''By the year 2000, in key areas of this nation, the majority population will be Hispanic,'' states the commission, whose members come from academic, business , and government circles. ''The prosperity of business enterprises, and the social health of entire communities, will depend mainly on Hispanics . . . and on their ability to support themselves and their families.''

Focusing on inner-city schools, the report addresses not only the needs of Hispanic students, but those of minority students in general. According to Dean Ylvisaker, the commission felt that most of the recent reports on education have ''not paid much attention to the special problems of low-income, inner-city students.''

But the commission's report treats in great detail the issue of language education, an obvious concern among Hispanics. The commission calls for swift mastery of English by all Hispanic students, noting that ''in every city we visited, we heard explicit Hispanic acknowledgment that English is of critical importance to their success.'' In calling for an end to tracking - the practice that results in most Hispanic students being shunted to vocational and general education programs - the commission recommends a core curriculum that emphasizes writing and speaking the English language.

It also calls for teaching Spanish to native Spanish speakers where feasible. Citing the economic and cultural value of a bilingual population, the commission notes that only 4 percent of Hispanic students have completed three or more years of such course work. For the first time, this year's federal bilingual education funding includes money for teaching of a student's language other than English, according to Jesse Soriano, director of the Office of Bilingual Education.

Lorenza Cavillo-Craig, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education, says her concern is that an emphasis on quick mastery of English will bury efforts to maintain Spanish.

''We're seeing a strong move to immersion (in English) again, and I feel strongly that that would reverse what progress we've made in California toward bringing down (Hispanic) dropout rates.'' She says as many as 80 percent of the state's Hispanics dropped out before bilingual education was introduced.

Federal funding for bilingual education is left unchanged this year at $139 million, according to Mr. Soriano. But Ms. Cavillo-Craig says there are rumblings that cutbacks are in the offing.

Ms. Cavillo-Craig says businesses and services, especially in the Southwest, are expressing greater need each year for students with mastery of more than just English. ''Whether it's Spanish, Tagalog, or Cambodian, we're finding that a mastery of a second language can bring real economic payoffs.''

Patricia Asip, a commission member and marketing manager with the J. C. Penney Company, says she believes US business is ''awakening to a need for action on Hispanic education.'' She says her experience shows her that efforts to introduce students to the working world ''must begin at an early stage, from junior high on.''

The commission does not recommend specific methods or programs for speeding up Hispanic students' mastery of English. Recognizing that different methods will serve different schools, it calls instead for changing accreditation standards so that such measures as student achievement and dropout rates are taken into account.

One of the more important conclusions of the commission - though perhaps the least easily translated into remedial action - is that the most successful schools are those that have developed a ''culture of caring,'' where Hispanic and other minority students feel their performance matters to someone.

''Americans tend to look to formulas and finances,'' says Ylvisaker, ''but it turns out that just plain caring is more important than anything else. Time and again the successful kids told us of the one teacher or other mentor who kept them going.''

The commission recommends that large, inner-city schools be organized to foster close-knit communities; that the ''totally inadequate'' number of counselors be increased to provide more personal attention to students; and that parents and the surrounding community be better integrated into the education process.

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