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Latino High School Graduation

Latino High School Graduation
Defying the Odds
Foreword by Charles M. Bonjean

The obstacles that cause Latino/a students to drop out of high school, and strategies to overcome them.

Series: Hogg Foundation Monograph Series, Charles M. Bonjean, ed.

March 1996
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342 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 figure, 14 tables |

While high school drop-out rates have steadily declined among white and African American students over the last twenty years, a constant 35 percent of Latino students continue to quit school before graduation. In this pioneering work, Harriett Romo and Toni Falbo reveal how a group of at-risk Latino students defied the odds and earned a high school diploma.

Romo and Falbo tracked the progress of 100 students in Austin, Texas, from 1989 to 1993. Drawing on interviews with the students and their parents, school records, and fieldwork in the schools and communities, the authors identify both the obstacles that caused many students to drop out and the successful strategies that other students and their parents pursued to ensure high school graduation.

The authors conclude with seven far-reaching recommendations for changes in the public schools. Sure to provoke debate among all school constituencies, this book will be required reading for school administrators, teachers, parents, legislators, and community leaders.

  • Foreword by Charles M. Bonjean
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. The Goals and Methods of This Book
  • 2. The Tracking of Hispanic Students: "You're not college material."
  • 3. Caught in the Web of School Policies: "Why me?"
  • 4. Gang Involvement and Educational Attainment: "My own gang. "
  • 5. Teen Motherhood: "I wanted him. "
  • 6. Immigrant and Second-Generation Students: "Well, she's Mexican. She's going to drop out. "
  • 7. Going for the GED: "I didn't want to be 20 when I graduated."
  • 8. Bureaucratic Glitches: " I guess no one wants me. "
  • 9. Cultural Boundaries, Family Resources, and Parental Actions: "Don't be like me--stay in school. "
  • 10. What Schools Must Do to Improve Graduation Rates: "What would I change? Everything."
  • Appendix 1: Parent Questionnaire
  • Appendix 2: Student Questionnaire
  • Appendix 3: Ethnographic Interview #1--Parent
  • Appendix 4: Ethnographic Interview #1--Student
  • Appendix 5: Ethnographic Interview #2--Parent
  • Appendix 6: Ethnographic Interview #2--Student
  • Appendix 7: Telephone Interview--Parent
  • Appendix 8: Telephone Interview--Student
  • Notes
  • Index

Harriett Romo is Associate Professor of Sociology at Southwest Texas State University. Toni Falbo is Professor of Educational Psychology and Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.


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We acknowledge from the outset that our own personal histories influenced the contents of this book. Our own strong beliefs in education as a tool for personal and social advancement drove us to begin the research project that is the basis of this book. Our backgrounds had an effect on the observations we made as we studied the "at risk" youth and families participating in our research project. No doubt, our personal histories influenced the conclusions we drew from these observations. The fact that we recognize this influence is not a weakness, but a strength. All researchers are influenced by their own personal histories. We will briefly describe ours here so that the readers of this book can understand our perspective.

Statement by Harriett D. Romo

In their perceptions of education, my parents were very much like the parents I interviewed for this book. My family valued education, but it did not have much of a practical impact on their lives. My father was killed in World War II shortly before I was born. As a struggling single parent, my mother had to move in with her mother in Louisiana to make ends meet. She had a high school diploma, but had acquired few skills that would allow her to get a job. She remarried when I was five and moved to Texas where my stepfather worked in a chemical refinery as an operator. The town I grew up in had an active Ku Klux Klan organization and clauses in real estate deeds that prohibited African Americans or Mexicans from owning property in the subdivisions. A small group of Mexican Americans attended my high school, which was on the outskirts of the town, but they did not socialize with the Anglo students.

Growing up, I never met anyone with a college education except my teachers and the family physician. When I discovered that a World War II Veteran's Orphan benefits program would pay my way to college, I was determined to attend and become a teacher. Having no role models of women who worked or went to college, my family did not understand why I would want to leave home to go to school or why I would want to work. My mother's advice when I began my freshman year at the University of Texas in Austin was "Don't get involved in a career and let marriage pass you by." While they were proud of my academic achievements, they had little understanding of the importance of education and themselves had not received any practical benefits from a high school diploma. My mother was always interested in what I was doing, but was embarrassed to come to the school to talk with my teachers.

At the university, I became interested in Latino issues and met my future husband, a Mexican American, participating in an exchange program for Latino students from Chile. I decided to teach for a year in Nicaragua to learn Spanish.

After returning from Nicaragua, my first public school assignment was in an inner-city school in Los Angeles, the September after the Watts riots. The personnel director for the school district was so surprised that I requested an inner-city school that he called the University of Texas long-distance and had my transcripts verified over the phone. He hired me on the spot. My assignment was a fifth-grade classroom of 40 students. None of my charges read above the third-grade level. I was the only Anglo in the classroom. Many of the students were immigrants from Mexico who spoke no English. All were from low-income families.

My experiences that year, and the next five years, in which I taught English as a Second Language, organized a remedial math and reading program, and wrote proposals to start a bilingual program, shaped my interest in Latino youth and their families and provided the impetus of my desires to learn how to make schooling more rewarding for Latino students. Realizing that I could make few changes at the classroom level, I took a job at a National Origin Desegregation Center. In that position I traveled to school districts throughout California to help administrators and teachers plan programs for limited-English-speaking students.

I returned to graduate school in sociology hoping to find answers to the achievement problems I saw Latino students encounter. My dissertation research focused on Mexican immigrant children. I did fieldwork with undocumented immigrant families who had very little formal education. I was impressed with the parents' ability to cut to the heart of issues affecting their children, with their insights into their experiences in the U.S., and with their ability to articulate their feelings about education. As newcomers to the U.S., they valued education highly and saw it as a way to improve the lives of their children. When I began the project described in this book, I was eager to interview the Latino high school students that the school district had identified as "at risk of dropping out of school." I hoped the ethnographic component of the present study would provide an opportunity to expand my dissertation research and allow me to delve more deeply into Latino families' experiences with schooling.

I was not disappointed. The interviews were poignant; I often left a home feeling deeply depressed and angry about what had happened to the family in the schools. I shared their disappointments and their frustrations when a child dropped out of school. I also felt their sense of achievement when their child received that high school diploma. I had not anticipated the intensity of emotion that this fieldwork would generate. My interviews with these families left me with worries about my own teenagers' school experiences and a sense of guilt because I had the educational and financial resources to make the system work for my children.

Several things surprised me from the fieldwork. I was unprepared for the sense of failure that lingered long after an individual dropped out of school. Parents who had dropped out as adolescents themselves still felt a deep anger, remorse, and defeat associated with school. Their sense of failure was intensified as they tried to help their own children stay in school. The same sense of failure was evident in the interviews of the youths, some of whom told us as we tried to schedule the last interviews, "You don't want to talk to me, I dropped out." Others blamed themselves for their school failures. Many of the parents and youth dealt with these failures by developing alternatives to school achievement-career alternatives, self-esteem alternatives, and success alternatives. One family celebrated their son's passing of the GED exam, once the parents realized the high school diploma was not a possibility. Another mother aspired for her son to graduate from high school and go to college, but resolved that she was happy that he had finally settled down with his girlfriend and started a family. Dropping out of school was so common among family members, friends, and neighbors that while it came as a disappointment, it was not unexpected.

Although I was well aware of the serious problems facing public schools, having taught in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, I had expected more progress when we began our work in the schools in 1988. I was surprised by the discrepancies in what the school district reported they were doing for "at risk" students and what the parents and students told us was lacking. The district we studied voiced a strong commitment to reduce the dropout rate, but the variety of programs listed for "at risk" students and the policies that stated the district's commitment to this problem did not address the deep sense of alienation and powerlessness that we encountered among the students and parents. I talked with students who did not know the names of their teachers. Students preferred dead-end jobs to school because "at work they care if you show up." Students told us they avoided talking to their teachers because they anticipated reprimands for poor achievement. Students told us they wanted to be doctors and lawyers, but by age 20 they had earned only a fraction of the credits required to earn a high school diploma. Not only did gangs affect those who were active members and involved in violent and illegal acts, but gang members also threatened those who tried to do well in school and intimidated others from attending. Peer culture promoted truancy, negative school attitudes, and disrespect for academic achievement. The programs that seemed to help students stay in school and graduate had long waiting lists or were not available at the schools our students attended.

We began the present study at a pivotal point, just when school districts in Texas were required for the first time to identify students who were "at risk of dropping out of school." I worried about the negative effects of this labeling, but I knew I could use the skills I had acquired in my graduate studies and teaching of sociology to place these students' experiences in a larger social context. Public schools have provided me with social and economic mobility and an intellectually satisfying career. I remain convinced that the same could happen for "at risk" students.

Statement by Toni Falbo

I have always believed that education was essential for human progress. My parents were deeply committed to my own education, making it the centerpiece of their lives for two decades. One of the reasons why they were so dedicated to my education was that my parents had suffered from deprivation, as children and youth, and they wanted to do all they could to prevent this from happening to me. They told me countless times that getting an education was the most important thing I could do to prevent bad things from happening to me. I share their values. Like most people of the American middle class, I assumed that all parents were like my parents and that all students graduated from high school.

I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area during a time when there was no significant Hispanic community there. The first time I remember seeing a Mexican American was at a Texas festival on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution. On a stage surrounded by vendors selling sausage and Texas barbecue was a mariachi band. They wore tight black pants and jackets. The seams of their costumes were outlined with white embroidery and beans were sewn along their pant legs. They wore gigantic straw hats. They sang their hearts out, and I loved the passion, the humor, the liveliness of their music.

About one year later, I left D.C. to go to graduate school in Los Angeles. I lived where other graduate students lived, on the beach. Other than frequent visits to Mexican restaurants, I had no daily contact with Mexican Americans. There were very few Mexican Americans among my graduate student peers. I didn't think much about this at the time. None of my peers did either, then.

As a graduate student in social psychology, I worked on a project about school desegregation. I learned how to analyze on a computer the numerical data about student achievement. One of the things I learned from this project was that the people in the southwestern part of the U.S. were divided into three categories: Mexican Americans, Blacks, and Anglos. I was an Anglo. I also learned that Mexican American students on the average did not do well in school.

I got my Ph.D. and joined the graduate faculty at the University of Texas. By this time I was very aware of the large proportion of the population that was of Mexican origin in California and Texas. I expected Mexican American students to show up in my graduate seminars, and I looked forward to working with them on trying to discover ways of improving the scholastic performance of Mexican Americans. I took Spanish classes. I waited.

After almost 20 years of teaching graduate school in Texas, I can count on one hand the number of Mexican American students I have taught. Over 90% of the American students in my graduate seminars have been Anglos.

It became clear to me that I would never have more than a handful of Mexican American graduate students unless I worked with public schools to improve the high school graduation rates of Mexican American students. Because so many Mexican American students never graduate from high school, there are relatively few eligible to go to college. And graduate school selects among those who have graduated from college. It is a wonder I have had any Mexican American graduate students at all!

In the long process of working on this project, I made many personal discoveries. One of the most painful was the way that many of my colleagues defended the status quo. As I explained my research to my colleagues, I uncovered attitudes that helped explain why Mexican Americans, and other minority groups, have remained in poverty. One colleague predicted that at the end of my research I would discover that "the smart ones will graduate"—in other words, that ability would explain it all. Another told me that the problem was in "the low quality of their family environments"—essentially, that the lack of education among Mexican-origin parents was responsible for their children's dropping out of school. Both of these explanations support the status quo in education because they blame Hispanics for their own school failures.

Few of my colleagues suspected that the problem was largely in the schools. Indeed, I became aware of how much some of my colleagues benefit from the status quo in public education and, consequently, had no desire to change it. One colleague complained to me about changes in local school policies that allowed any student to take an honors course in high school. This professor was certain that this would "water down" the standards and prevent his "gifted" children from getting the education they deserved.

I have resigned myself to the fact that some parents will fight the changes that we propose in the schools because they realize that our recommendations would radically shift the school's resources to serving the needs of the majority of students, not just the few who qualify to be in the elite programs.

I was delighted by the prospect of working with Harriett Romo on this topic for two reasons. First, Harriett was as motivated as I was to find ways of improving the high school graduation rates of Mexican American students. Second, Harriett was trained as an ethnographer and had done extensive fieldwork with Mexican-origin families. I was trained to combine statistical information with case studies. Over the course of my career, I have refined my ability to integrate quantitative skills with my skills in the analysis of qualitative information. Harriett and I realized that if we combined our methodological skills, we would be more likely to develop a deeper understanding of the educational problems of Latino youths.

Our Statement

Our position is that the goal of public education should be to educate all students so that they can be productive adults and good citizens. At present, most public schools in the U.S. are not doing this because they have been rewarded for focusing their attention on the needs of students from the middle class. While some of the students we studied could have obtained bachelor's degrees, none of them succeeded in four-year universities after high school graduation. This underachievement was due in part to the schools' tracking of Mexican American students into general or vocational coursework that did not train them to have the skills they needed to get a bachelor's degree or a job that offered future mobility. Most of our students did not even make it to community college. Indeed, some very bright students we studied were unable to graduate from high school because school policies were not responsive to their needs, as children of uneducated Mexicans.

Our collective failure to educate Mexican-origin students up to the levels that will make them eligible for good jobs will cost us dearly. Not only will we be losing the quality work that they could have done, but also we will be preventing several generations from full participation in the mainstream economy.

We learned from the families we studied that parents of "at risk" students were reluctant to demand that the schools take action to prevent school failure for their children. Most of the parents were demoralized by their feelings that they had failed in public schools. They also believed that they were powerless to make the schools work for their children. The majority of the parents were grateful for our attention to their children's school problems and thanked us for interviewing them and for listening to their experiences.

As we wrote this book, we incorporated the words of the parents and adolescents directly from the transcribed interviews. We wanted to capture the tone and intensity of their reflections. We have tried to represent their experiences as they presented them to us. We hope that these stories motivate people to make the changes needed in our schools and communities to assure that all students can be successful.



“The authors focus on stories of 'students who graduate from high school against the odds'—especially gratifying since Hispanic youth drop out at about twice the rate of non-Hispanic whites. Romo and Falbo emphasize strategies the students, their parents, and the schools used to achieve graduation. . . . The longitudinal data and combination of qualitative and quantitative data strengthen the study and give it significance.”

“This book ...tells stories about Hispanic community life, family life, gang life, and about what it means to be an at-risk kid trying to make it.... I have yet to read a similar book attempting this magnitude of diversity with the skill found here.”
Nestor Rodríguez, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Houston


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