In the United States, Hispanic students are almost twice as likely to drop out of high school as their peers. Locally in Arizona, where a growing Hispanic citizenry is already a sizeable chunk of the population, the trend in academic underachievement within the demographic is especially troubling.
In Tucson, one student who refuses to become just another statistic, is Alma.
“My name is Alma Molina.”
She says it with a sense of purpose. Pride. Confidence. As though her family’s hopes rest on her shoulders – and in reality, they do.
A Tucson native, Alma and her family moved to Mexico when she was in elementary school. As a teenager, she wanted to head back to the U.S. to finish high school, and attend college. There was just one, major problem: her parents could not return due to an immigration issue.
“I told them that the things I want are not going to be available in Mexico,” she said. “They were really supportive. My mom would always say, ‘You have to be better than me.’”
Today, the senior at Palo Verde High School has a 3.8 GPA, and aspires to study international relations at a school such as American University. She lives with a family member, and though a national border separates them, her parents are always on her mind.
To some, Alma’s firm commitment to education may seem surprising. In Arizona, graduation rates among Hispanic students are among the lowest of all ethnic groups, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. While true that the graduation rate has been increasing, it still lags behind that of most other demographics.
As of 2011, the group reported that the Hispanic high school graduation rate in Arizona is 72.2 percent, compared to the state average of 77.9 percent. Nationally, in 2012, the dropout rate among Hispanic students was 12.7 percent, compared to the 6.6 percent average among all races, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Between the sexes, Hispanic males had a slightly higher dropout rate (13.9) than females (11.3).
“I’m not using this word lightly – I think it’s a crisis,” said Joseph Garcia, director of ASU’s Latino Public Policy Center. “It’s somewhat of a silent crisis. Not that we don’t know about it, it’s just that we have not responded to it.”
Garcia emphasized the societal and moral imperatives of helping these students, but also noted the far-reaching economic consequences of failing to address the issue. He contributed to a 2012 report from the Morrison Institute for Public Policy that analyzed underachievement among Hispanic students and the impact on Arizona’s economy.
Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, agreed with Garcia’s assessment of the urgency to find a solution to the aforementioned issues. An economic landscape barren of educated and highly-skilled workers will not be able to convince employers that Arizona is amenable to churning out a profit, he said.
“When you have a fast-growing demographic that runs the risk of falling far behind academically, we run the risk of that same demographic being ill-prepared for economic success in the future,” Taylor added.
A key step in solving the issue, Garcia said, is recognizing that the principle problem behind the poor graduation rates is not rooted in race or ethnicity.
“Poverty is the great common denominator,” Garcia said. “If there’s a poor white kid living next to a poor Latino kid in a poor neighborhood in a poor school district, the poor white kid will have the same obstacles as his Latino neighbor.”
In Arizona, the percentage of Hispanics aged 17 or younger living in poverty is more than double that of non-Hispanic whites, according to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project.
Debbie Ferryman, dropout prevention coordinator for the Tucson Unified School District, said convincing students who face daily obstacles in their personal lives and are barely getting by that staying in school is central to their long-term success is a major challenge.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility. Everybody,” Ferryman said. “There’s a student body of 49,000 … it’s impossible for us to keep up with all these kids.”
Still, the program does its best, Ferryman said. A dropout prevention specialist is stationed at each TUSD high school. If needed, they can analyze student attendance and academic performance, make home visits, introduce students and families to relevant agencies, or offer other support services to prevent a student from dropping out.
Garcia said government officials, business leaders, teachers, administrators, parents and students need to be included in a statewide, comprehensive conversation on how to tackle this issue head-on. In terms of helping students bridge the importance of an education with their long-term goals, he said increased opportunities for them to explore careers – whether via a part-time internship or even just a field trip – can make a lasting impression.
“I’m not saying every Latino kid needs to get a college degree,” he said. “I’m saying every Latino kid needs to achieve their full potential.”
Rene Seym is a fifth year senior at Palo Verde. In December, he will become the first person in his family to graduate from high school, and hopes to join the Navy afterward. He said he’s faced many challenges in his personal life that took a toll on his academic performance, but family support made him stay in school.
“Even though it’s my fifth year here, I’m still trying,” he said. “All the struggles, all the problems, all the drama … I want to be able to say, ‘I made it.’”
For Hispanic students such as Alma, a new set of challenges may arise once they attend college.
Socorro Carrizosa, program of director for the UA’s Adalberto & Ana Guerrero Student Center, said many of the 1,200 students the Center works with annually come from heavily Hispanic schools, and struggle to adjust once they get to the UA.
“You feel different where you didn’t expect to feel different,” she said.
The Center helps these students by giving them a sense of community, and offering services through a “Latino lens,” such as an abeulitas (grandmothers) mentoring initiative that connects grandparents with students, cultural celebrations, a bilingual convocation ceremony and study abroad trips in Mexico.
All these programs are meant at giving students a strong base, and encourage them to believe that they have the ability to succeed in the larger campus community, Carrizosa said.
Years from now, Alma wants to be a policymaker with an emphasis on serving underprivileged demographics. And although she’s thankful to be in the U.S. and in a position to pursue her goals, she said it saddens her that many of her peers, in Tucson and around Arizona, will not have the same opportunities that she does.
“We all have a vested interest in this,” Garcia said. “The benefits are great if we address this … consequently, the result if we don’t, is devastating.”
Amer Taleb is a reporter with for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.