HISPANICS AND AMERICAN EDUCATION.
In 1975, Dr. Marta Sotomayor and I authored a work entitled A Medio Grito: Chicanos and American Education, its research funded by the Ford Foundation and sponsored by the National Council of la Raza when Raul Yzaguirre was president of NCLR. The study was an in-depth view of how well or poorly Chicano students fared in the American education system. Almost 40 years later, segments of the situation have not changed extensively. The drop-out rate from high schools for Hispanics continues to be high. The curriculum is essentially still white.
But there is light in the sheol, light first provided by Jaime Escalante, a math teacher at Garfield High School in East L.A. who coaches a group of students towards the AP Calculus in their senior year. Despite the soft bigotry of low expectations, the students pass the AP Calculus exam. Thinking that because the students are Mexican Americans they must have cheated, The Educational Testing Service required them to take the AP Calculus exam over which again they passed.
Recently, New Mexico’s high school students had Advance Placement exam scores that were below the national average. But according to The College Board, the highest percentage of students who passed the test were Latinos. Of the Latino high school graduates taking an AP course last year, nearly half of them passed–43 percent scored a 3 or higher on the college entrance exam – the highest percentage in the country. In 2013, 53.3 percent of New Mexico’s high school graduates were Latino, of those students 46.7 percent took the AP exam with a large percentage of them passing the test and earning college credit.
All of this posits an unmistakable conclusion that Hispanic high school students are smart and the only reason they are judged otherwise and underperform is due to inherent racism of the system. According to the National Council of La Raza, Hispanics remain the most under-educated demographic of the U. S. population—they enter school later, leave earlier, and are less likely to complete high school or go to college.
This is one of the reasons why there are still so few Hispanics in the professions compared to their number in the population. In recent years, the momentum to get Hispanic high school students into colleges has gained impetus, principally from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), a growing consortium of colleges and universities across the country whose student bodies include more than 25% Hispanics.
Organized in 1986 by a stalwart group of 16 universities as an Hispanic model of land-grant Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities is poised to grow substantially from 370 Hispanic Serving Institutions to as many as 500 by the end of the decade.
As Hispanic Serving Institutions members of the consortium reap benefits from that designation. To date, over $2 billion have been awarded to HSIs through grant programs. There are many prestige and grant considerations as an HSI. In 1994, I wrote a 5 year HSI grant proposal funded for $1.7 million and directed the program for its full 5 year period at Texas State University—Sul Ross. According to Trevor Packer, Senior Vice President for AP and Instruction at the College Board, “A challenge that New Mexico faces is that there are a lot of small rural schools in the state and small schools nationwide are where it’s most challenging to set up AP programs because the funding for such schools can’t afford to have a regular teacher and an AP teacher.”
In an unprecedented move, New Mexico became the first state to partner with the College Board to offer AP course materials in Spanish. The program has been so successful that other states have launched similar efforts. (New Mexico also has AP materials in the Navajo language.) Working in this achievement endeavor with New Mexico Hispanic students is the New Mexico Achievement Gap Research Alliance which brings together educators, policymakers, researchers, and others to identify and reduce obstacles to academic success among the state’s Hispanic and Native American students. The Lumina Foundation has launched a $7.2 million collaborative with 12 partners in 10 states to strengthen ventures in key metropolitan areas that show promise in improving postsecondary attainment of Latino students (http://www.luminafoundation.org/newsroom/news_releases/2011-11-7.html#sthash.eYTwAdjs.dpuf).
Lumina president and CEO, Jamie Merisotis explains that “Latinos are emblematic of today’s 21st century student. They are largely first-generation college students—many of whom are working adults, with family responsibilities who oftentimes begin their postsecondary education in community colleges. Increasing the access and degree attainment rates of Latinos is critical and our hope is that Latino Student Success will provide catalytic support that can have a positive impact on making all 21st century students more successful.” Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based private foundation, is committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college—especially 21st century students: low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners.
Though student success seminars are touted as strategic venues for improving the educational trajectory of Hispanic students, these venues are problematic when they lack Hispanic content. The problems I see with our First Year Experience program at Western New Mexico University, for example, stem from what appears to be unwillingness to deal with Hispanic students as “others.” Our First Year Experience reflects resistance to Hispanic proposals to lubricate the program per Hispanic realities—in other words, Hispanic content. A solution that “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” is not a good solution. That is, offering one fare for all of the students. We need to remember that “different folks need different strokes.”
My wife, Dr. Gilda Baeza Ortego, and I attended John Gardner’s 2007 North Carolina Launch Conference on the Foundations of Excellence (FoE) First Year Experience and are distressed by the program’s content and emphasis at our university which seems to place no material value on the Hispanicity of the Hispanic students in the Student Success Seminars of the program. A more pronounced presence of Hispanic faculty and advisors in that program would be an improvement.
Despite hardened faculty attitudes toward our Hispanic students, The First Year Experience can work for Hispanic students at our university but the organization, curriculum, and staffing must be consonant with the needs of the students, taking into account their high mortality rates in particular disciplines. Supporting students in achieving their academic goals should be at the heart of our university’s mission ligated to teaching excellence and enhanced pedagogy, especially for first-year Hispanic students.
To support teaching excellence and enhanced pedagogy we ought not entrust the program solely to adjunct instructors. We should be recruiting faculty committed to teaching students “where they are,” as John Dewey posited, not recruiting faculty who want to change our university to a Harvard on the Gila. We are a university serving a population of extraordinary diversity and strength. Let’s not hide the light of that diversity and strength under a bushel.
Since attending John Gardner’s First Year Experience conference in Charlotte, North Carolina in August, 2007—as part of a contingent of faculty and Student Affairs personnel from our university—I’ve established a collaborative relationship with John Gardner. Gilda and I both came away from that conference buoyed by the prospects of that First Year Experience at our school, especially as the imperatives of the First Year Experience Conference could be applied in the retention and graduation rates for our Hispanic students, since our school is an Hispanic Serving Institution.
Unfortunately, in hammering out the First Year Experience program at our school, a configuration emerged that established the First Year Experience at as a pallid program of what the majority of Anglo planners of first year experience thought was appropriate. There was limited input by the Chicano faculty and Caucus on campus into that configuration. It was effectively blocked from input that would have included Hispanic Content in Student Success Seminars of the First Year Experience.
It occurs to me that Chicanos at Western New Mexico University lost out in hammering together the First Year Experience. In retrospect, instead of emerging as a confluence of cultures, the plan for the First Year Experience emerged principally—a huevo (by design)—as an apodictic white cultural plan for indoctrinating Latino students into the white mainstream curriculum. This may sound harsh, but it’s time to be frank about how to improve retention and graduation rates of Latinos at predominantly white HSI’s.
And that frankness involves confronting the racial issue head-on and acknowledging the mainstream ideologies tied to academic instruction. Only then—sin pelos en la lengua—can we move jointly toward the goals of a truly democratic education for all American students, including Latino students. Only then, on a level-playing field, can they make it, though many of us made it despite a level-playing field.
Experienced Hispanic faculty must be included in designing the first-year experience for Hispanic students.
Copyright 2014 by Dr. Philip De Ortego y Gasca.