within the education establishment. Delia Pompa, an assistant commissioner for program development at the state education agency, said that regardless of the exact percentage of dropouts, “It’s still a huge percentage and it’s still unacceptable.” Pompa, who used to be a teacher in the public schools, said she believes most people in education have become aware of the magnitude of the dropout crisis. “We’re trying to get people to stop quibbling about the numbers and get down to the problem,” she said. Last year, the legislature passed a law that requires an “at-risk coordinator” in every school district to work on dropout prevention plans. The law also requires the agency to maintain statewide figures on dropouts; now, for the first time, a computer information gathering system is being put in place to incorporate statistics from each of the state’s 1,051 school districts. From now through May the TEA will be collecting information on school dropout patterns and by next summer will have official figures. In addition, an interim committee led by Austin state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos has been holding hearings around the state \(most to prepare a report for the 71st legislature, which convenes in January. THOUGH THE DROPOUT crisis is sometimes treated as an isolated dysfunction in the educational sys tem, there is a wider social context within which the problem exists. For example, recent figures show 37 percent of Hispanic children are below the poverty line, compared to 33 percent of black children and 25 percent of white children. It could hardly be coincidence that the dropout rates appear in the same stair-step configuration. Besides poverty, some Hispanic children have an additional language barrier. And there is little doubt that Hispanic families have been slower to get involved in their children’s education, especially in cases where the parents themselves did not finish high school. Beatrice Hernandez, the 16-year-old who quit school in Austin because of attendance problems, said her parents tend to avoid school activities. She has a ten-year-old brother in school, she said, “But I’m the one going to his PTA meetings.” Her mother dropped out of school in the 6th grade. “Hispanic parents tend to be supportive of kids up to the point where they themselves finished,” said Fr. John Korcsmar, a Catholic priest who works with the Austin Interfaith community group in a heavily Hispanic part of southeast Austin. Ken Fujimoto, an organizer for Austin Interfaith, said the solution to the educational crisis is “deceptively simple: get parents, teachers and administrators to sit down together.” Fujimoto said some parents who have a lower level of education are reluctant to approach teachers. “There’s a sense of intimidation there,” he said. His group is working this fall to get parents involved while their children are at the elementary level, where experts say a child’s most important educational patterns are set. “You really have to start young,” Korcsmar said. “The disinterest in school starts early.” Augustina Reyes of the Houston school district noted another difference in the educational experience for Hispanics: a low percentage of teachers and school administrators are Hispanic which she said is not the case for blacks. “Because blacks have more role models, because they’ve always had access to higher education, they’ve always been able to produce teachers.” Reyes said about 50 percent of teachers in Houston are black. “That does make a difference,” she said. Statistics from the TEA show a predominantly white teaching force: 78 percent of the state’s 184,000 teachers are Anglo, while 12 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are black. Of course, before minority groups begin producing more teachers they will have to find ways for today’s students to get a better education. In the Texas style of excruciatingly gradual social change, the state is beginning to develop programs to address the dropout problem. The main approaches that have developed thus far, however, have come from community groups or the business sector. One time-tested program is called Communities in Schools. It began in Houston in 1979 as a partnership between the Houston school district and the private sector and was then expanded to Austin, San Antonio, El Paso and Dallas. The program recruits volunteers from businesses and governmental agencies to counsel students identified as being at risk of dropping out. In San Antonio, Mayor Henry Cisneros touts a program modeled on one in Boston in which private business groups put up scholarship money to serve as an incentive to get poorer kids to college. The widely respected Citizens Organized for Public Service is participating in the effort. Indeed, some of the loudest complaints about the deficiencies of the American educational system are coming from business leaders. As new jobs develop in hightech centers such as Austin and old jobs in oil and agriculture and heavy industry disappear, business leaders worry about whether they will have enough literate workers skilled in basic communications. In a speech last fall in Detroit, David Kearns, chairman of Xerox Corp., said if current trends continue American business will have to hire a million new workers a year who can’t read and write. “Teaching them how, and absorbing the lost productivity while they’re learning, will cost industry $15 billion a year for as long as it takes,” he said. “Teaching new workers basic skills is doing the schools’ product recall work for them and frankly, I resent it.” Some critics, such as Aurelio Montemayor of IDRA warn that such programs as the college incentive program tried in Boston and San Antonio do not always end up benefiting the poor students and merely “look good on the surface.” But the concern in the business community is generating new sources of funds at a time when the federal government has cut back on education funding. This summer, for example, the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic affairs group in Washington, DC, announced that it was receiving $150,000 from RJR Nabisco \(the tobacco and food conyouths make it through high school. Meanwhile a host of counseling, tutoring, bilingual programs and other dropout prevention and recovery efforts are just beginning to be discussed as a result of a state Board of Education directive that all school districts must put in place plans to deal with dropouts. A program of “peer assistance and leadership” that was developed eight years ago in Austin is now expanding to mid-size cities across the state, with the help of grant money from the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Grant Thomas, the program’s energetic director, says that peer helping programs are often effective in helping students avoid trouble and stay in school because they rely on students to support each other. “Young people can get through to other kids a lot sooner than old farts like you or me,” he said. He adds that such programs are cost effective because they rely on volunteer work from students. Such an approach is only one part of what needs to happen to turn the dropout problem around, in the view of Dr. Maria del Refugio Robledo, the chief investigator for IDRA’s school dropout survey. “You can’t think of the answer as just ‘a program,’ ” she said. She advocates an approach to the problem that is system-wide and prevention oriented. Schools begin to lose their students, in her view, when students feel they are not appreciated or “valued,” and when students do not have proper support to help them past rough times, and when parents are not involved. It may well take an increase in funds to make schools into places where students are properly educated but it is money that will pay off later, she said. The 86,000 students in the class of 1986 who “were lost,” as she puts it, will result in a cost to the state of $17 billion in foregone income, taxes and in increased welfare and incarceration. For every dollar spent now to prevent dropouts, Robledo says, the state will get back nine dollars. Such are the arguments that will undoubtedly be brought before the legislature next session. But as Delia Pompa, of the state education agency, said, the work is just beginning. “The problem was a long time coming,” Pompa said, “and it will be a long time being solved.” 10 SEPTEMBER 30, 1988
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