Fox News Latino spoke to Juan Sepúlveda, head of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics, about bad schools, good teachers, and the issues confronting our community.
President Obama is devoting Monday’s town hall to Latino education. (This will be televised on Univision at 7p.m. ET/PT Monday night.) Why now?
I would respectfully say that this isn’t the first time we’re having this conversation, we’ve been having it since we’ve come into office. And for good reason: The Latino community continues to be the largest and fastest-growing minority group. On the education side, at this time when we need to make tough decisions on the budget, the President has been very clear about saying that some things that are more important [than others.] Education remains a key part of our strategy.
What are the main challenges confronting Latino students?
We have the lowest educational attainment levels of any group. We’re the only group in the country that has less than half our kids in any kind of an early childhood program, so the achievement gap is starting pretty early: As our kids come into elementary school, they’re already having to try to catch up.
About half of our kids are not graduating high school on time. Of those who are picking up their diplomas, about half are not ready to go to college. At the higher ed level, only 13 percent of the community has a B.A. degree; if you throw in community colleges, you only get up to 19 percent. Only about 4 percent has a professional or a graduate degree.
The other thing we can’t forget about is adult education. It’s sometimes treated like a stepchild, but it’s the fourth pillar. Traditionally, the little adult education that we are taking is around English as a Second Language, which is important. But as far as career and technical training to help you bump up your skills so that, particularly in this tough economy, your family can make a little more money? Our adults aren’t taking those courses.
So how can we improve those numbers?
One piece that’s really critical: We’ve got to really push to make sure we have great teachers and great principals at each of the schools. That impacts us more than other communities and in a bigger way. Of the nearly 98,000 public schools in the country, there are 2,500 high schools and their feeder [schools] that account for 75% of all the drop-off in the Latino community. Our schools are the ones where there are more problems; they’re struggling the most. We need to focus on turnaround schools and find ways to incentivize teachers and administrators. We need to pay them more as they do the toughest job out there.
Is there any school that’s doing it right?
There’s a ton of them. You name the issue: English-language learners, poor Latino kids living in a tough violent neighborhood, rural migrants—whatever the situation is, we have solved it somewhere in the country. The International School of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas, is a great example. They’ve broken down the size of the school so it’s a school with a school, teachers stay with the same class, students help each other. They’ve bumped up their scores; more kids are going to college; they’re finishing college.
And that’s just one example. The question is, how do we learn from the places that have figured it out, and how do we spread that knowledge?
What role do parents play?
Personal responsibility has to be part of the equation. As parents, there’s a responsibility to say, ‘Turn the TV off.’ To find a spot for your kids to study, to check their homework. Our students have to work hard, and the parents have to be right there. But we also feel that the way the schools welcome or don’t welcome the parents right now has to change. The president had asked for a doubling of the amount of money devoted to parent and community engagement.
Studies say that Latino students are more likely to work while attending college, and that finances are one of the main reasons they drop out. What can be done about that?
We know from both experience and research that there’s a tipping point. Once you hit near full-time hours, there’s a negative impact on your ability to go to school. Even though you do everything you can, it just becomes really tough. So we have to tell our kids, ‘It’s incredible that you’re a hard worker, but trust us, you’re not going to help yourself or your family if you try to do too much.’
We also need to do a little financial education and help our families understand the system. Because we have an overall lower median wage, a higher percentage of our kids are going to qualify for financial aid. The Obama administration dramatically increased funding for Pell grants. We’re trying to hold on to that in the budget battles.
Last week, a member of the Arizona senate read into record a letter from a substitute teacher who wrote that Hispanic students don’t want to learn and just want to be gang members. Is the President going to address that?
I haven’t heard that the president has responded and typically he doesn’t. There are going to be really crazy, extreme, out of the mainstream statements all over the country. There was the Kansas state rep who talked about, maybe the way helicopters shoot pigs is an answer for how we take on immigrants. Nobody believes those kinds of solutions or those ways to talk about the issue.
The vast majority of Latinos in the U.S. are here legally. But some areas have been trying to bar undocumented kids from school. What is your position on that?
In kindergarten through 12, it’s pretty clear. There was a Supreme Court decision about 30 years ago that says all kids in the United States, citizens or not, have a right to public school education. So for those states or places that are having these conversations, [the White House’s] job right now is to tell them, you have to follow the law. You don’t have the power to say, ‘I’ve decided I’m not going to serve immigrant kids.’
At the higher ed level, that’s where the DREAM Act comes in. The President said it in the State of the Union, when a political consultant had said, ‘Let it go, why are you even talking about this?’ But he was like, ‘No, this means so much to me. This is not who we are in America.’ The last thing we want to do is lose these kinds of stars.
The president has not given up. We’re feeling hope moving forward in this year, when there are no elections, that the large numbers of Republican senators who we need, who supported the DREAM Act in the past, will be able to work with us.
Interview conducted and edited by Sandy M. Fernández.