In the small, rural community of Foley, Ala., for example, educators at the local elementary school are expecting retention rates for Hispanic kindergartners and 1st graders to quadruple recent levels, a direct result, they argue, of the state's crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
Before 2000, the growth in the nation's Hispanic population was driven largely by immigration. In the past decade, Hispanic births have overtaken immigration as the main source of growth, and more than 90 percent of Latinos under the age of 18 are American-born. Data released in May by the Pew Hispanic Center show that immigration from Mexico--which for four decades brought the largest wave of immigrants from a single country in U.S. history--has come to a standstill and may have reversed.
Despite the once-longstanding inflow of families from Mexico, the Latino community in the United States is incredibly diverse, with different racial backgrounds, traditions, socioeconomic levels, and countries of origin and descent represented. Latinos of Mexican origin or descent, far and away the largest group, make up nearly two-thirds of the nation's Hispanic community. Latinos of Puerto Rican origin or descent are the second-largest group, at 9 percent, while those of Cuban and Salvadoran heritage make up the third- and fourth-largest shares, respectively.
The generational status of Latino youths--whether they are immigrants themselves, children of immigrants, or children of native-born Hispanics--also accounts for important differences in the population.
And some sectors of the Latino population--for example, the Cuban-immigrant and Cuban-American community in South Florida--have more social capital, such as older generations of adults with higher educational attainment and political clout, to draw on. That explains, in part, the success that the Miami-Dade County school system has had in raising graduation rates for its Hispanic students, who are largely of Cuban origin or heritage.
But Miami educators also say their success is due to their embrace of their students' heritages and the wide range of English-learning options they provide for students of all proficiency levels.
While the Spanish language is often a unifying characteristic, there are large variations in language skills among Hispanics nationwide, especially among those who are in the school-age population, Fry says. Roughly 30 percent of school-age Latinos report speaking only English, according to household-survey results collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. An additional 52 percent say that they speak Spanish at home, but that they speak English very well.
But the survey results don't capture the full English-literacy skills of a respondent, and they also do not show how many children who report speaking English might also be receiving English-language services in their schools, Fry says.
Still, more than 77 percent of the 5.3 million English-language learners in the nation's public schools are from Spanish-language backgrounds, according to data for the 2008-09 school year from the U.S. Department of Education.
And how successful those English-learners are in acquiring the language has an important impact on the overall achievement picture for Latinos. Some of the lowest-achieving Latinos are those who attend U.S. schools for seven or more years without ever meeting criteria to be considered fluent in English. Those students may sound fluent, but they lack the reading and writing skills to be successful in accessing core academic content.
"For these kids, the problem is that they aren't getting the supports they need to address the reading and writing skills that they lack, and they also aren't getting access to the mainstream curriculum that they need to graduate and succeed," says Patricia Gandara, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-director of the university's Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.
For many Latino families, the combination of a continuing cycle of low educational attainment and life in isolated communities that are overwhelmingly poor makes it difficult for successive generations to change their trajectory in an upward direction.
Many parents of Latino youths--especially those who come from Mexican-immigrant families--have had little formal education themselves, especially at the high school level, either in their home countries or the United States, Gandara says.
"This is really an important context for people to understand when it comes to our societal expectations that children will complete high school and, hopefully, go onto college," Gandara says. "With Latinos, children are often living in communities where no one has completed high school or even had contact with high school, and where people don't know how to go to college or why you would go to college."
For Latinas, because of gender stereotypes and factors such as the pressure to make family a priority, the desire to attend college can be outmatched by the expectation that it won't be an option for them.
In the Mexican-American community, children who are third generation (born to U.S.-born parents) or higher often fare worse than their relatives who were immigrants themselves or second generation, a phenomenon that has been studied in Mexican-American families. Some of that is explained, Gandara says, by the tendency of Latino students to attend schools with few peers who are college-oriented and college-bound.
"Peers are huge," Gandara says. "If you are exposed to peers who are college-oriented, you are naturally going to hear things from them about how to get over the ivy walls. Latinos are not getting the kind of access to college-bound peers who are oftentimes the biggest agents for information and motivation."
Pompa, of the National Council of La Raza, believes the core problem is not the ethnic or socioeconomic homogeneity of the public schools that many Latino students attend, but what the educators who work in those schools expect and demand from them.
"To say that these kids only have each other as role models, it's a weak argument when you consider the world we live in," she says. "To doom a school because it's mostly Hispanic or [English-language learners], that's the epitome of low expectations."
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