Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E53%257E932398,00.html

To keep Latinos, schools get personal
By Michael Riley
Denver Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 18, 2002

With a thick index finger, principal Phil Gallegos runs down the printed list of the day's absences and picks up the phone.

His daily calls to parents whose teenagers have skipped class at Denver's Arts and Cultural Studies High School will take Gallegos almost four hours. A 30-year veteran of public schools, a weary Gallegos will go home at 8 p.m.

"It is hardest to bring back a kid who feels the system has let them down," said Gallegos, whose majority-Hispanic student body makes up a third of north Denver's Manual complex. "If I am going to lose a student, I want to know why."

Early the same day, in a classroom halfway across town, teacher Dellena Aguilar gathers her students in a circle and asks them to rate their moods on a scale from one to 10.

"If they say two, and later I ask them what's going on, they may tell me, 'My mom came home at 4 in the morning' or 'My dad just got out of jail,"' said Aguilar, who teaches Healthy Decision-Making at Escuela Tlatelolco, a private school with mostly Hispanic students on Federal Boulevard.

Two educators. Two schools. Both fighting Denver's high Hispanic dropout rate, which recent data show is among the worst in the nation. Thirty-seven percent of Hispanics between ages 16 and 19 are not in school and don't have a diploma, reflecting both the number of students who dropped out and immigrants who never entered school, according to the 2000 census.

Both schools can boast some success.

Ninety percent of students who enter Tlatelolco graduate, compared with about 60 percent among all Hispanics last year in Denver Public Schools. While the three "small schools" in the Manual complex opened only last year, the Hispanic dropout rate - a snapshot of how many students leave during one year - fell from 9.5 percent in 2000-01 to 3.9 percent in 2001-02.

Stacked side by side, the Arts and Cultural Studies High School (ACS) and Escuela Tlatelolco don't look much alike.

Tlatelolco is a private school founded more than 30 years ago by one of the country's most prominent Chicano activists. Classrooms are draped in portraits of Zapatista guerrillas and Communist revolutionaries. Many of the school's Hispanic students were born in the U.S. and grew up in Denver's inner-city neighborhoods.

ACS is part of a remake of a public school in trouble. The former Manual High School was reorganized last year. More than half of Gallegos' students are still learning English.

Still, the schools reflect an emerging national consensus on how to keep Hispanics in the classroom.

Smaller classes and effective bilingual-education programs help, said William Velez, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an expert on Hispanic dropout rates.

"One element that is often overlooked is cultural. Latino kids usually like teachers who are familiar with their culture. Ideally they will speak Spanish. They will live in the community," Velez said.

And those practices increasingly include intensive outreach to parents who may not speak English or whose understanding of American schools is limited.

A chart on the computer in Patty Lawless' cluttered cubicle at ACS connects parents, teachers and students like links on a chain.

"Our premise is that if parents are involved with schools and with their students, the students do better with everything from truancy and tardiness to dropping out," said Lawless, a full-time parent organizer at ACS.

Lawless has spent much of the past year knocking on doors, listening in both English and Spanish to parents. The first payoff came in May when a group of parents organized, and hundreds attended, a meeting with school officials and police to demand better security at the school and closer monitoring of students. Their demands have been met, Lawless said.

Like Tlatelolco's "talking circles" and Gallegos' phone routine, parent-organizing efforts personalize relationships that may get sidelined in bigger schools.

Research suggests that helps at-risk students generally, but may be especially valuable for Hispanics.

"Part of the problem, especially with poor Latinos, is that their families don't have what I call the human capital to guide their children through school, and so they have to rely on other adults," Velez said.

Hispanics most often drop out because there is a disconnect between school and students' lives, experts say. Some immigrants prioritize work over education. Others don't understand America's school system or don't feel a part of it.

The children of second- and third-generation Hispanics no longer feel excluded by language, but may feel alienated as part of the urban underclass.

Fifteen-year-old Loren Montaņez was kicked out of Denver Public Schools repeatedly before dropping out to clean office buildings. Now a student at Tlatelolco, Montaņez said he fought stereotypes held by DPS teachers and others that marked him as a trouble-maker.

Because it's private, teachers at Escuela Tlatelolco can experiment with curriculum in ways that would be tougher in public schools.

ACS is more costly than the district average. Each teacher in its English Language Acquisition program, for instance, has more than 150 hours of special training.

And ACS staffers say the program attracts teachers who may be more willing to spend time getting to know students.

If the program went districtwide, "you might end up with teachers who are not comfortable in this kind of environment," teacher Kathy Bougher said.