Latino figures focus on improving college graduation rates

By Samuel Mountjoy

Hidy Lopez, a 23-year-old Latina, dreams of becoming a doctor. However, growing up as a first-generation American, she faced backlash from some of her family members for her high hopes.

Lopez sat among a state senator and a school superintendent on the Policy Panel at the fifth annual Closing the Latino Achievement Gap Summit on Friday in the Titan Student Union.

Hundreds attended the summit, which aims to create a dialogue between legislators, students and school administrators to end the disparity of high school and college graduation rates that exists among Latinos in Orange County.

“We need mentors,” Lopez said. “You know somebody that has succeeded that is Latino or Latina. Take us to that person, take us to that family member that did achieve those goals so that we can be able to dream and be able to reach those goals.”

For the first time ever, local high school students attended the summit through GEAR UP, a Cal State Fullerton program which works with six area schools to prepare them for college.

Lopez’s student perspective resonated with the high schoolers, said Rachel Nankervis, a sociology and American studies major, who is a tutor with GEAR UP.

GEAR UP operates through two grants from the department of education and maintains on-site tutors and college advisors at six schools in the Fullerton-Anaheim area.

Katella High School in Anaheim, one of the GEAR UP schools, had an 86 percent Hispanic or Latino population last year.

Just 27 percent of Latino high school graduates in Orange County complete the required coursework for UC and CSU eligibility, compared to 43 percent of general population graduates, according to the California Department of Education.

This achievement gap is created by a variety of factors, but four “seismic points” facing the Latino community were explained by the summit’s keynote speaker, Al Mijares, Ph.D., the superintendent of the Orange County Department of Education.

“In its simplest form, a question can be asked: Why do a disproportionate number of Latino students underachieve in all levels of the American classroom?” Mijares said.

Seismic points, Mijares explained, are the issues which may provide an answer to correcting the achievement gap.

• Expectations

• Linguistic and language challenges

• Cultural characteristics

• Political will

Addressing the issue of expectations is a matter of rigorous coursework, Mijares said.

As vice president of the Western Region of the College Board, he went to five poorly-performing public schools in Denver, Colo., where 60 percent of students were Latino, with the intention of raising the rigor of coursework.

“Sometimes, expectations are lowered,” Mijares said. “So consequently, we must be very intentional. Those standards must be high. There must be a purposeful, deliberate effort to set the bar high, and it’s going to require moral courage.”

President Barack Obama praised Bruce Randolph School, one of the Denver schools, in his 2011 State of the Union Address. The year before, 97 percent of students received a diploma.

That year, 91 percent of Bruce Randolph School students were Latino, and 87 percent of graduates went on to college.

Linguistic and language challenges may be the toughest issue to overcome, said Mijares.

The issues do not arise simply from an inability to speak English, but include the negative issues faced when speaking Spanish.

He cited an anti-bilingual movement that has been pervasive for many years, but now seems to be lessening.

Bilingual and bicultural teachers can help to combat the stigma sometimes associated with Spanish, he explained.

The cultural characteristics of Latinos can also pose a problem for some Latino students living in the U.S., said Mijares.

Bicultural challenges require schools to work with parents to teach them the skills needed to help their children through a school system they are unfamiliar with.

He talked of his experience with Latino parents not subscribing to the notion that hard work and high aspirations can lead their children to college and onto successful careers.

That issue is something that Hidy Lopez said she feels can be helped by programs which educate parents on what the university is doing for students, such as Destino Universidad, the college outreach program which was held on Saturday.

“Instead of being left out of the process, they are actually included,” she said. “They can increase their education, increase how they succeed, how they grow, and how they can be able to impact Latinos in the future as they continue to educate themselves.”

The last seismic point is the political will needed to put education reforms into place.

“When the right doesn’t like the left, and we just can’t come together to do what is in the best interests for our students, we lack the political will,” Mijares said. “That requires courage for you to get up and to challenge the system.”

Of all Latino undergraduate students in Orange County, more than 75 percent are currently attending community colleges.

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), one of the event’s honorary co-chairs, sits on the higher-education committee in the California Assembly.

Last week, she held a roundtable with higher education presidents. One of their big concerns is the transfer of students from community colleges to universities.

In 2012, more Latinos transferred from Fullerton College to CSUF than from any other community college in Orange County.

Fullerton College, which has a Latino population of 48 percent, has increased the Latino graduation rate by 240 percent in the past three years, said Rajen Vurdien, Ph.D., president of Fullerton College.

Associate for transfer degrees implemented in 2010 have been successful in streamlining course matriculation, Vurdien said.

Fullerton College currently has 18 transfer degrees available, and has submitted applications for five more.

However, Cal State Fullerton turned away almost 8,000 CSU eligible transfer students last year due to state underfunding.

As a result, many students have had to attend universities farther away from families, such as San Diego State University.

Next year’s Closing the Latino Achievement Gap Summit will be held at Fullerton College.

Originally published in The Daily Titan.