Houston's Hispanics are dropping out of school at an alarming rate and only a small group is going on to college, creating a daunting problem for a city that is 40 percent Hispanic and growing.
If it's not addressed, Houston risks having a swelling, uneducated population that could undermine city's economic future.
Individually, it translates into lower wages, lack of health care coverage and more limited employment opportunities. Collectively, it translates into less consumer spending, more demand on social services and fewer skills to support the city's economic growth.
Christy Diaz, 20, is similar to many dropouts in that she felt pressures both at home and school when she left in the 11th grade. Her parents were separating and she was absent too much. "I just started to give up," she said.
After leaving school, Diaz worked as a receptionist at a real estate company, a secretary for a welding company and a waitress at a Chinese buffet. She's had opportunities for better jobs, but her lack of education stood in her way.
"People ask me, did you get your GED, did you get your diploma? I say, no. All I can do is put my head down. It is depressing," said Diaz, who did go back for her GED.
Half of the city's Hispanics over age 25 lack a high school diploma, compared with 26 percent overall, according to recent census data. Only 10 percent of Hispanic adults have gone to college, compared with 28 percent for the city as a whole.
"That's a great challenge for the Latino community," noted Stephen Klineberg, professor of Sociology at Rice University. "Will those Latinos be ready for the leadership positions ... the skilled occupations that will be the basis of the wealth of Houston in the 21st century, or will they be part of a growing underclass of people without the opportunity to earn enough money to support a family?"
While some experts fear that nearly half of Hispanic youngsters drop out of inner-city high schools, the Houston Independent School District's official dropout rate for the class of 2010 was just 13.8 percent, better than previous years.
"It is a tremendous improvement," Klineberg said. But the results are not coming fast enough, "especially in a rapidly changing economy where the construction and manufacturing jobs now require new skills and sophisticated knowledge."
Hiring is already a challenge for various Houston industries.
"We all have aging payrolls. We're expanding with a technology that requires more and more workers with better education and skills," said Lucretia Ahrens, community relations manager at CenterPoint Energy.
Many realize in their 20s how hard it is to get a job without a diploma, said Eduardo Honold, director of Adult Education in the Department of Education of Harris County. "In this economy, employers can basically pick from a much wider range of potential employees out there. Right now there are a lot of college grads looking for jobs and they are taking lower skilled jobs."
The lack of education comes with a tremendous political cost to the community, said state Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston.
"It's very disturbing because we see the census figures and we see that the Hispanic population has increased but (without an education) they will be underrepresented in the government and on the boards," Hernandez said. "Other people will be making decisions for the community if we don't get ready."
If the area could cut its 2010 dropout rate in half, the economy would create up to 1,550 new jobs, generating $20 million more in state and local taxes and $297 million more in economic growth by the time those people reach mid-career, according to an analysis by the research center Alliance for Excellent Education, based in Washington, D.C.
The reasons for the high dropout rate for Houston Hispanics are diverse, but include struggling to learn English, needing to work to help their families pay bills and coping with unplanned pregnancies. Solutions are just as complex as the problem, advocates said.
Chris Barbic, founder of YES Prep Public Schools, said schools have a better chance of succeeding with at-risk students when they establish a close relationship with the students' family, have good, committed teachers, and create a system of incentives to keep students motivated, such as excursions and visits to universities.
Barbic, who is now leading a school reform effort in Tennessee, stresses that YES has schools with fewer students, longer hours and a longer school year.
That increased instructional time is particularly important in fighting the dropout rate among lower-income families, said Robert Sanborn, CEO of Children at Risk.
Recovering students who have dropped out is a difficult task, according to Carol Acosta, a social worker. Each September, she said, volunteers and city and school officials go door to door during the annual "Grads Within Reach" drive in an attempt to persuade dropouts to return.
"We get five to six phone numbers -- grandma's, a friend's, a girlfriend's, anybody that we may know, like a neighbor, so we can track them ... and make sure they enroll," said Acosta.
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