NEARLY half of all young Hispanics in the US do not finish high school. For Hector Montenegro, the principal at Albert Sidney Johnston High School here, one solution is a free lunch.
A casual observer might call it a bribe. Mr. Montenegro says free food allows him to keep students -- half of whom are poor, most of them Hispanic -- in school. ''If we didn't feed them,'' he says, ''we'd lose them.''
Free burritos are part of an effort by Montenegro to tackle one of the nation's most enduring social problems. But the program itself faces some challenges. Last week, the House of Representatives voted to cut federal funding for dropout-prevention programs and career counseling. This may leave Johnston and other schools with the choice of seeking state or corporate funding.
No one would disagree that kids leaving schools is a problem: Dropout rates nationwide for Hispanics are nearly three times higher than those of whites. And while high-school completion rates for blacks are increasing -- 74 percent of black students are now completing high school -- the dropout rate among Hispanics has stayed constant or increased slightly in recent years.
Until a few years ago at Johnston, students were permitted to leave the campus for lunch. Less than half returned and each year, 20 percent dropped out. Today, with dropout rates down to 4 percent, students are required to stay on campus; many of them eat free tacos while counselors and teachers talk about academic and social skills and career options.
Half of the students at Johnston, which is located in a rough, blue-collar section of Austin, live in poverty. The school is a study in budgetary stress: The floors are freshly polished, but the metal pillars holding up the roof are beginning to rust. Some here credit Montenegro with doing the best with the circumstances and turning some kids around in a neighborhood where gangs, drugs, and drive-by shootings are a fact of life.
''The school system worked at o ne time,'' he says. ''But now 50 percent of Hispanic kids drop out. No business could survive with that kind of failure rate. Educators need to start rethinking the way they do business.''
Montenegro's initiatives include summer sessions for incoming ninth graders, after-school programs that pay students to be tutored, and infant day-care facilities for teenage mothers. Last year, 90 of the 1,270 students at the school had babies.
While some educators like Montenegro have had success in lowering the dropout rate, Hispanic leaders are worried. ''We are very much at risk of creating a permanent underclass,'' says Maria Robledo Montecel, executive director of the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio. ''The effort over the last several years to stem the dropout rate of Hispanics hasn't created the result that we need.''
Ms. Montecel, whose group runs a tutoring program for Hispanic students, says the current attack on bilingual education only exacerbates the problem. Bilingual education, she says, allows students ''to keep learning math, science, and social studies while they learn English.''
Federal funding for dropout prevention has helped dozens of schools with high minority populations to address the dropout problem. Montenegro recently received a $250,000 grant from the US Department of Education that allowed him to hire four new staffers, one of whom works with the students on academic issues during the lunch period. ''Without additional funding,'' he says, ''we couldn't do half of what we're doing.''
But federal funding for dropout prevention has fallen under the budget ax. The House last week rescinded $12.5 million or about 10 percent of the funding for the School to Work Opportunities Act, the federal program that allowed Montenegro to hire additional staff. The House also cut a $28 million program that provided funding for dropout-prevention projects. Funding for next year was also eliminated.
GOP leaders in Congress say the cuts are aimed at eliminating duplication by several agencies that have overlapping programs. As for the dropout program, GOP congressional staffers say they are cutting programs the Clinton administration suggested.
Laura Hanson of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, says the US needs a national strategy to address the Hispanic dropout problem. ''This is an important issue for the nation as a whole because Latinos are the largest net labor force entrants,'' she says. Demographers predict that by 2010, Hispanics will be the largest minority group in the US and that 1 of every 3 new workers will be Hispanic.