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Latinos hardest hit by city’s dropout problem

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Latino students leave school without a diploma at higher rates than any other ethnic group. Among Latino males, 60 percent fail to graduate from high school within six years.

Despite this, there are few dropout prevention programs specifically targeted toward this population.

“Latino children have different ethnic and social conditions [and need] a different approach to dealing with their educational needs,” said Manuel Portillo, director of Open Borders and a member of Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project (EPOP).

He and other activists said that many Latino students often feel disengaged.

“Most of the kids have said that they do not feel like they belong in the school,” said Lisette Agosto Cintron, education director of ASPIRA, a community group that runs many after-school programs. And if students don’t feel connected to school, she added, “parents are less likely to get involved.”

In addition to dealing with obstacles like peer pressure and low expectations facing most urban youth, Latinos face language barriers, low educational attainment by family members and cultural differences, said Nicholas Torres, president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos.

Plus, Torres stated, it often takes five or six years for a young person to learn a second language well enough to be able to understand academic content. But, he said, “our education system is set up to transition youth into English in a much shorter period of time. The result is not having mastery in either language.” English-speaking students with Spanish-speaking parents “creates a divide between generations, making it more difficult for parents to reinforce students’ learning,” he said.

Robert S. Nix, chair of the government relations committee of the state’s Hispanic Bar Association, said that besides language and a consumer culture, “functional illiteracy” drives truancy and dropping out. “Too many students,” he said, “can’t read anywhere near grade level when they get to high school.”

The School District doesn’t have a dropout prevention strategy that focuses on ethnic differences, said Courtney Collins-Shapiro of its Office of Secondary Education.

“We target based on need, not racial or gender profiles,” she said. Mindful of the numbers, however, she said that the District often puts special programs in schools with large Latino populations. And one of the five accelerated high schools, Fairhill, is in a Latino neighborhood.

The District also works with community organizations, although efforts to arrange an event to help Latino dropouts reconnect to school have not yet borne fruit.

Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, said that one way to combat the problem might be to “find ways to promote bilingualism as an asset rather than as a deficit.”

“There are so many jobs out there that require people to be bilingual,” she said. “Why aren’t we taking advantage of that to keep bilingual students in school?”

Additional reporting by Dale Mezzacappa.

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