Special Report: The State of Latino Education
After I got this assignment from Latina magazine, I had to get creative since I wasn’t given permission to go inside the school with one of the highest drop-out rates in the region. I stood outside and hung out with students to get their opinion.
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We sent a Latina reporter to a Boston school to see for herself why our kids are leaving. What we learned might surprise you.
“LOTS OF PEOPLE here drop out,” graduating senior Karolin Villatoro says nonchalantly.
I’m standing outside the doors of East Boston High School, home to a 23 percent dropout rate, a lackluster graduation rate (49 percent) and a Latino student population of more than 57 percent. In other words, it looks like many other predominantly Hispanic public schools in America. The principal hasn’t given me permission to enter, so I hang out outside. Outside, it seems, is where many of the issues are anyway.
Education advocates repeatedly told me that schools don’t want to talk about their dropout rates, that they don’t want fault to come their way. They were right; several school principals ignored my request to visit their schools for our Latina story. At least the Boston school district spokesman, Jonathan Palumbo, e-mailed me a statement saying that school officials call students who say they’re going to drop out to convince them to stay and that the district is making changes: shifting some school starting times to later in the morning and doing away with lockouts. But it’s the students, such as Kenya Cantu, who give the real insight.
Kenya is a 17-year-old pregnant three-time dropout whom I met at Sociedad Latina, a nearly 40-year-old Boston nonprofit that uses community-based programs to help students succeed. She told me she quit working hard back in middle school after her stepfather went absent. “After he left, I didn’t have anyone encouraging me,” she said. “No one believed in me anymore.”
She used to be part of a Sociedad program that trains students to work in hospitals, stocking baby-delivery rooms with diapers, blankets and wipes for minimum wage. Now, as she waits to give birth, she’s working as Sociedad’s part-time office assistant because she “doesn’t have anything else to do.” But she’ll be plenty busy soon; she plans to go back to school when her baby reaches 1 month old.
“Everyone tells me to just go get my GED, but that’s the easy way out,” she said. “I want to walk across that stage and get my diploma. I want to go to my prom.”
Back at East Boston, I walk along the sidewalk with a group of four freshmen and one junior headed to their old middle school, two blocks away. “We’re going to visit our old teacher,” they tell me. “You can come with us if you want.” During our walk, I learn they all have friends who have dropped out.
“One of my friends just got frustrated after having to repeat his senior year three times,” says Miguel Hernandez, a Cuban American who looks all business in his ROTC uniform. “He was 20 and didn’t want to deal with high school anymore, so he dropped out.”
“All my friends are doing all they can to make it,” says Tiffany Armstrong, 16. “The problem is that they never think they’re doing well enough for their parents.” Tiffany has always lived in this predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and she shares a story about her Puerto Rican friend who’s only one year older than her: The girl lives in the projects, her father is dead and her mother works three jobs. “She just felt like her grades weren’t that good, and she wanted to help her mom out,” Tiffany explains. “She’s been to some GED programs but never finished. Now, she sits at home waiting for McDonald’s and Subway to call her back.”
One by one, each student tells me stories about former classmates, most mentioning drugs, pregnancy or gangs. But a Chicano student, Edgar Mendoza, blames it on teachers. “Some of them, they just expect us to fail,” Edgar says. “They don’t give us enough encouragement.”
We reach Umana/Barnes Middle School, and the kids rush to hug their teacher. When Nadine Fernandes (Miss Fernandes to you), finds out I’m from Latina, she says, “I have that on my bedstand!” Then she gets serious. “These kids were my students, both in seventh and eighth grades. We became a family,” says Nadine, a 28-year veteran of the classroom. “They know I care for them. I tell them, ‘You have your mother at home; I am your mother at school. You come to me if you need anything.’ It’s important to build their self-esteem, to teach them responsibility and to listen.”
To her, that’s the secret, the solution to keeping kids in school: being there. And she means it—she even stood with Tiffany as her godmother at her confirmation ceremony.
“Our class fought sometimes,” Tiffany says, “but we were a family.”
After the students are done joking around with Miss Fernandes, we part ways; the kids heading home, me back to the high school. I’m thinking about Karolin, the first student I met today. She’s the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, and in a week she will become the first in her family to graduate from high school. The 18-year-old will start at Massachusetts College of Art in the fall. But her two best friends weren’t so lucky.
“One, she dropped out at the beginning of senior year because she got pregnant,” Karolin told me. “And the second one, she started hanging out at parties with gang members and then started dating one. Now she’s all into the gang stuff and quit going to school.”
But Karolin is proud of herself, and hopes her success is a sign of things to come. “Most students in this neighborhood aren’t expected to finish high school,” she said. “But I’m proof that anyone can do it.”
This article was originally published in Latina Magazine. Click here to download the original article.