Original URL: http://www.arizonarepublic.com/special12/articles/1218pimentel18.html

Speak loudly, Latinos, and make education your issue

O. Ricardo Pimentel, The Arizona Republic, Sept. 27, 2002

Earlier, I posed the question of how we would react if Anglo students were dropping out of school at the rate
Latino students now do.

As I wrote that, however, another question nagged.

Is the Latino community taking enough responsibility for improving graduation rates for its children?

I don't think it is, but judging from reader response, the lapse is not the one many of you think it is.

To many of these folks, it is all a matter of personal responsibility, as if schools are passive participants in the act of education.

Many of these folks, of course, have been the same ones so enamored of our educational system that they want school vouchers so children can escape it. Their mantra has been that our schools are failing - unless, of course, it's a matter of Latino dropout rates. And then suddenly it's all a matter of personal irresponsibility by Latinos.

Of course parents matter. But the finger-pointing here by conservatives at Latino parents is far too simplistic, revealing a cluelessness about both the culture and the pernicious effects of poverty and low income. Such finger-pointing leaves unscrutinized the institutional shortcomings that contribute to much of the failure.

No, this isn't a scolding for Latinos to get with a program as others define it. Readers who have written or called to insist that Latino parents are indifferent to their children's education are still sadly misinformed.

Latinos need to get loud on the topic, helping folks realize that the education of our children is the most vital civil rights issue confronting Arizona today.

The solution is about generating more resources, focusing attention on struggling children and school creativity and flexibility. I'd add the need to de-politicize educational issues but in some respe cts we need more politicization, as in wielding more political power for a specific purpose.

This is a difficult task, I know, because of prevailing mindsets. We generally don't blame the patient for clear cases of malpractice. Unless, of course, we're talking about education and Latinos.

We've long settled the issue of whether our kids - all of our kids - are legally entitled to equal education. Now, it's time to make it come true.

It is hard to argue that minority children, particularly Latino and Native American children in Arizona, are getting equal treatment. They are scoring lower on all measures of educational achievement and graduating at a lower rate than their Anglo counterparts.

And, no, it isn't because, as one reader suggests, we're dumber. Much of this is a function of socio-economic disparities. But these through the years have served as excuses for not adequately serving kids who, in many minds, are going to fail anyway.

Well, sure they will if we don't effectively offset or compensate for these disparities in our schools - including language gaps. And Latinos have been too silent on this failure.

That's partly a function of our own successes. Many have worked their way into middle-class comfort and are so removed from their migrant roots, that they forget how difficult it can be for newcomers. And being loud, we like to say, is not the Latino way.

I'm advocating a different kind of activism. Not so much picket signs as political organization for the specific purpose of righting a civil wrong. And doing it loudly. This will serve two purposes. It will awaken the policymakers and educate Latino parents that they must actively participate in their children's education and, if need be, confront failing schools and policies.

Ultimately, of course, the answer is ridding ourselves of poverty. But how does one do that without first educating the children who suffer from its effects? Education is clearly the horse that comes before the proverbial cart.

By posing the question of what would happen if Anglos were dropping out, it's become clear to me that Latinos have a big public relations problem. People think we simply don't care. The problem: How will others care if they think we don't?

Latinos are the ones dropping out. We need to make more noise about it.

Reach Pimentel at ricardo.pimentel@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8210. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.


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