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
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
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
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
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.