Ada Diaz Kirby could easily have skipped college and concentrated on her career in the telecommunications industry in order to support her parents and a younger brother, who immigrated to the United States after she had grown.
Ms. Diaz Kirby, 52, is now president of her own company, CommTech International of Denver, a high-tech, computer-based training firm, and she is still at somewhat of a loss to explain why she insisted on attending and graduating from college.
“It was very difficult because I did it pretty much on my own, and no one really told me, ‘You have to go to college,’ ” says Ms. Diaz Kirby, who emigrated from Cuba to the United States at age 11 and grew up in an orphanage and foster homes. She has lived on her own since high school.
“Even though I was so far removed from the [Cuban] culture and my parents and any adult supervision, I had this message that kept playing in my mind that [attending college] was expected of me,” she says.
Ms. Diaz Kirby, who graduated with honors from Regis University in Denver in the late 1980s, says high expectations – both her own and those of others – and a culture that values education contributed to her college and career success.
High expectations and respect for the educational process are among the many factors in the K–12 years that experts point to as important in preparing Hispanic students for educational and professional success in the United States.
Despite sometimes-gloomy statistics to the contrary, success stories abound among U.S. Hispanics. Optimists point to a growing middle class and increased high school and college graduation rates among U.S.-born Hispanics (see “The Hispanic Middle Class Comes of Age,” December 2001). The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the percentage of U.S.-born Hispanics graduating from high school climbed from 47 percent in 1979 to 62 percent in 1999. The college graduation rate climbed from 9 percent to 13 percent over the same period.
Education experts and successful Hispanics point to a wide array of factors in the K–12 years that indicate or contribute to educational and, consequently, career success among Hispanic students.
Leonard A. Valverde, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University, says one of the most important contributors to future success is having a teacher who believes in you. And that, unfortunately, tends to be uncommon among minority populations. Too often, he says, teachers underestimate minority students. Those students consequently are less likely to receive challenging work, and that contributes to lower performance.
Teachers and other adults who take an interest in a child’s life can play a huge role in shaping that child’s educational future, according to Mr. Valverde.
“If someone cares about the individual and provides as much support as possible,” he says, “that motivates them to develop the belief that they can be successful,” he says.
Rosie Flamenco, director of the LULAC National Educational Service Center in San Francisco, which serves Hispanic students in the San Francisco and San Mateo area, says she believes mentoring programs should begin as early as elementary school, because students tend to get “lost” as early as middle school.
“Students who don’t get the appropriate encouragement, students who don’t have high expectations from parents and teachers, tend to have a more difficult time adjusting to the high school system,” she says.
Hispanic students also need to be exposed to successful professionals and to college campuses, where they can ask questions and see other Hispanics engaged in successful college and professional careers, Ms. Flamenco says.
A recent study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation found that Hispanic females trying to get an education face resistance from schools, parents, boyfriends, and Hispanic culture generally (see “Running the Gauntlet of Higher Education,” May 2001).
The study’s authors, Angela B. Ginorio and Michelle Huston, outline a series of steps to increase the number of college-educated Hispanic women. They recommend adult encouragement, recruitment and training of more Hispanic teachers, family involvement in college preparation, and dealing with stereotypes and societal issues that discourage Hispanic women from getting an education.
Mr. Valverde says that most Hispanics who do well in school have parents who take an active interest in their children’s education. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re rich or poor or black or white or brown – having parents participate in some fashion in their children’s education always proves to be a positive rather than a negative.”
But Mr. Valverde admits that, statistically speaking, income does play a role in whether a Hispanic student attends college. That’s because middle-class Hispanics associate with co-workers and neighbors who attend or have graduated from college. They also appreciate how important college is, can afford it, and are more likely to send their children to schools where students are expected to go to college.
Statistics show that Hispanics from low-income families – and those whose parents did not attend college – are less likely to attend college than other students, and Ms. Flamenco says it’s difficult for first-generation Hispanic students to get a college degree.
“It tends to be the third-generation [Hispanics] who are more familiar with the culture and with the system,” she says, adding that many students and their families don’t have the information they need to plan adequately for college.
Louis Tornatzky, director of the Center for Latino Educational Excellence at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, California, says a survey of 1,054 Hispanic parents in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles supports Ms. Flamenco’s statement.
The survey found that two-thirds of Hispanic parents missed at least half of eight college-related questions posed to them, such as: “Do colleges usually value grades in advanced placement classes more than in regular classes?”
“We were fairly astonished at the relative lack of knowledge,” he says, observing also that disseminating accurate information needs to be a high priority among Hispanic education organizations and media outlets.
First-generation Hispanic parents averaged a little more than three correct answers on the eight-question test, while second-generation Hispanic parents averaged a 4.34 and third-generation parents a 4.79, Mr. Tornatzky says.
Students who don’t get proper information may find themselves unprepared to attend college even if they want to, he says, and many find recovering from that deficit more than they can handle.
Many Hispanic parents don’t realize that students should begin college preparatory courses in the ninth grade. Many Hispanic high school students are similarly uninformed and often are shocked in their junior and senior years to discover that they lack the required course credits to be admitted to college.
Students planning to attend college should make sure they take the advanced placement classes required for admittance to universities. Those who lack those courses are forced to attend night school, summer school, or community colleges.
Ms. Flamenco says many high schools have so many students that counselors don’t have time to give each one the attention he or she needs. She also says much useful information is not available in Spanish, although that is beginning to change.
Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, says Hispanic students in small schools tend to outperform their counterparts at larger schools. “The larger the school, the more of a problem it is for students to feel they belong, and that affects their performance,” he says.
Early success also is a crucial factor in nudging Hispanic students toward college, Mr. Flores says, which means it’s important to emphasize grades and other measures of performance at the elementary and middle-school levels as well.
“Students who perform well in their early educational careers tend to do well in college, especially those who take a rigorous curriculum and learn skills that will help them later on,” he says.
Hispanic students who take challenging classes, especially advanced math, tend to be better prepared for and perform better in college, Mr. Flores says. The U.S. Department of Education confirms that high school students who take algebra, geometry, and other rigorous math courses are more likely to go on to college.
The department also reports that students who finish a course beyond the level of algebra 2, such as trigonometry or pre-calculus, are more than twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Mr. Flores, who attended primary school and earned an undergraduate degree in Mexico and a doctorate in higher education in the United States, attributes much of his educational success to supportive parents and teachers in his early years. He also credits peers and professors in his doctoral program with emphasizing excellence.
Sarita Brown, president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Institute in Washington, D.C., the public-sector organization of the San Francisco–based Hispanic Scholarship Fund, says that in a perfect world, every student in grades K–12 would attend school in a safe, resource-rich learning environment.
“That means an environment where students and everyone involved can be focused on learning,” says Ms. Brown. “The best curriculum that we have to offer should be easily available to the students, and every aspect of the interaction between students, families, and school personnel should be about high achievement and an expectation of success.”
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