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Cutting Latino dropout rate is good for us all

Stephanie Alvarado.  |  Quiet Pictures

Stephanie Alvarado. | Quiet Pictures

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Updated: November 21, 2013 6:37AM

I never thought I wouldn’t go to college.

True, no one in my family had, but so what? Someone’s gotta be first. Why couldn’t it be me?

This was the early ’70s, when anything seemed possible. School was this beacon of hope. Drop out? No way. Society was changing; smart kids like my Southeast Side friends and me should be in college.

I felt like I was at the start of something big, particularly when it came to Latinos and education. By the time I was old, it would be a different world.

Well, that time is now, and the world is different, but not how I expected. Somewhere along the line education lost its luster. While growing up, our neighborhood supported us. Now, some minority communities look down on education, give kids a hard time if they’re studious, and say they’re “acting white.”

I think about what college cost then and now and wonder: Would my friends and I have been able to forge the same path today?

What bothers me even more is the high school dropout rate. On average, the graduation rate for Latino and African-American students in the United States is less than 69 percent, according to the American Graduate Research Center.

For Latino students who do go on to college, they’re less likely to go to a four-year institution, be in school full time or obtain a bachelor’s degree, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Those were all things my friends and I did.

A two-part series by Independent Lens, “The Graduates,” looks at the Latino dropout problem, focusing on students bucking the trend.

I watched this documentary and often was overwhelmed by the bleakness. The problems the profiled students face are daunting: homelessness, being smart but undocumented, teen pregnancy, schools like prison.

But despite everything, once involved with the right programs, these teens found hope in the future. I was shocked these bright kids considered dropping out. But they got help that made them not only stay in school but thrive.

Chicagoan Stephanie Alvarado, who was born here of parents from El Salvador, is one of the profiled. A student at the financially strapped Gage Park High school, she’s 14 in the documentary and feeling defeated, weighs dropping out. But she gets involved at school and discovers new talents.

I talked to her this week. She’s 16, getting straight A’s and knows she’s going to college. Don’t give up, she tells the discouraged: “You never know what opportunities will come along your way.”

Here’s why we should care that Latino students stay in school: High school grads are more likely to have a job, make a higher taxable income, generate jobs in ways dropouts do not, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. So Latino students’ success is all of our economic success.

“The Graduates” shows the value of programs that help students find their way, see the positive in school, as Alvarado did.


Twitter: @SueOntiveros

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