PHOENIX – As parents file into a classroom at Riverview Elementary School, Enriqueta Di Santos tells them to write their children’s names on sheets of butcher paper labeled “English” and “Español,” indicating the language spoken at home.
When everyone has found a seat, the sheet labeled Español is full of names. The one labeled English is blank.
Di Santos continues in Spanish.
“How would you feel if I told you that half of your children will not graduate from college?” she asks. “Statistics say that half of them will, half of them won’t.”
She walks to the sheets on the wall and selects a girl’s name, asking her parents to stand. Nicolas Vizcarra, an immigrant from Mexico, rises. His daughter sits next to him.
“What would you do if I deleted your daughter’s name?” Di Santos asks, moving her marker along the child’s name as if to cross it out. “She could be one of the ones that don’t make it.”
“You won’t,” Vizcarra says, tensing his broad shoulders.
Di Santos presses him.
“Will you support her? Will you support her always?” she asks.
Di Santos works with the American Dream Academy, one of a growing number of organizations trying to boost the academic achievement of Latinos by teaching parents the basics of the U.S. education system and how to prepare children for college. Both are foreign concepts to many in the Latino immigrant community.
Tonight, Di Santos is selling these parents on the value of participating in a 10-week course on those subjects. Her question to Vizcarra is lesson No. 1.
“What made you come to this meeting?” she asks. “What caught your attention?”
“Someone called me from the school and said it would help her,” Vizcarra says, glancing at his daughter. “I almost didn’t come because she is so young – only in elementary.”
“The years go by fast,” Di Santos says, moving away from the paper. “There is no better time to plan for your child’s education.”
Vizcarra retakes his seat looking noticeably more relaxed. His daughter’s name is safe.
Reason for worry
Low education levels have long affected the Latino community, but recently released 2010 U.S. Census data illustrate why the problem has education advocates in Arizona so worried.
Hispanics are the state’s fastest-growing group, increasing 46.3 percent in the past decade while growth for all other groups was 17.3 percent. The group makes up an increasingly large percentage of Arizona’s total population, growing to 29.7 percent in 2010 from 25.3 percent in 2000 and 18.8 percent in 1990.
That growth is even more pronounced among Hispanic children. About 43.2 percent of Arizona’s kids were Hispanic, moving slightly ahead of non-Hispanic whites at 41.6 percent, according to the 2010 Census.
Arizona ranks fourth among states with the highest percentage of Hispanic children, after Texas at 48 percent, California at 51 percent and New Mexico at 58 percent. About 23 percent of children nationally are Hispanic.
The number of Hispanic children entering the education system will continue to grow, said Richard Fry, a senior research associate with the Pew Hispanic Center.
By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the total population of Hispanic school-age children will increase to 28 million from 11 million in 2006, or 166 percent, while non-Hispanic school-age children will grow to 45 million from 43 million, or 4 percent.
“Public schools are going to grow, and almost all of that growth is going to be Hispanic kids,” Fry said.
That growth has raised concerns about academic achievement in the Latino community, Fry added.
About 76 percent of Hispanic children ages 18 to 24 nationally have completed high school or received a GED, compared with 87 percent of blacks and 94 percent of whites, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.
Most Hispanic children were born in the U.S., but immigrants make up 55 percent of the overall Latino community.
Recent data show education levels for all demographic groups have risen in recent years, but Latinos have made little progress toward closing the gap, Fry said.
“These are issues that nationally, clearly, are not going to go away anytime soon,” he said.
As the population of Latino students continues to grow, so does pressure to raise academic performance by addressing the particular challenges they face.
For example, about 20 percent of Hispanic public school students lack English proficiency, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But language skills tend not to limit students in the long run, Fry said.
“There is a significant number, particularly at the elementary level, where English acquisition is a problem,” he said. “But within three to five years after kindergarten, they’ll have English proficiency.”
Parent “educational capital,” or the amount of schooling a parent has completed, appears to significantly influence a child’s long-term academic success, Fry said, because parents with more education can draw on experience to guide children.
“College-going is a complicated process, and it helps if you have a parent who has been through it,” he said.
Here too, Latinos fall behind. Nationally, about 37 percent of Hispanic public school students have at least one parent who has attended college, Fry said, compared with more than 67 percent of white students and 53 percent of black students.
Eugene Garcia, vice president for education partnerships at Arizona State University, said a mother’s education level in particular correlates with a child’s educational attainment.
Parents who are unfamiliar with the U.S. education system often feel they cannot help their children with school work or shy away from contacting teachers and school administrators, Garcia said.
“Immigrant populations, either because of their experiences outside the United States or because of their non-successful experiences within the United States, don’t have that kind of road map,” he said. “It’s not something they’ve experienced, so they can’t pass on that information to their kids.
“There’s an incongruity between what the schools think parents should do and what the parents think schools should do,” Garcia added.
Patricia Gandara, a professor of education at University of California, Los Angeles, said factors like low social and economic status also correlate with decreased parent involvement. She said immigrants often find themselves too economically stressed, inexperienced or culturally removed from U.S. schools to help their children.
“Immigrant parents often have little experience with American schools and don’t understand what to do or what their role might be,” Gandara said. “The parents feel awkward going to something where they don’t understand what is going on.”
Teaching the dream
That’s the basic concept behind parent education programs: Getting parents and educators on the same page.
The American Dream Academy, a collaboration between Arizona State University and various Phoenix-area school districts, tries to involve parents by teaching them topics ranging from how to prepare for college and find financial aid to calculating a grade point average.
The program also uses group meetings and one-on-one contact between parents and educators to create a support community for Latino and immigrant parents.
Since its inception in 2006, the academy has “graduated” more than 15,853 parents from more than 125 schools in the Phoenix area.
Lisette Flores, who teaches parents at the American Dream Academy, said the program’s curriculum focuses on basic information that immigrant parents need to start a conversation with their children about school.
“There’s no such thing as a GPA in Latin American countries,” she said. “They don’t know that their children have certain rights and that there are certain responsibilities.”
Flores, who works as an attorney in Phoenix, grew up as a first-generation American citizen in a Mexican immigrant family and knows the challenges these families face firsthand.
“I had the good fortune of graduating from university, but it really was a difficult journey because my parents weren’t aware of any resources,” she said. “Trying to explain to my parents what I was going through in school was difficult. At some point, I just withdrew.”
Teaching parents has confirmed for her the importance of basic information about the system, she said. Parents start to believe college is within reach for their children.
“They want a better future for their children,” Flores said. “They’re very happy to find out there are grants … and they always ask a lot of questions about financial aid. That one could be a whole-day course.”
Abel Hoyos, another parent teacher who also teaches at Maryvale High School in Phoenix, said joining the academy has shown him the importance of connecting with parents as well as students.
“I had 10 years of experience as a teacher, and I realized that I spent all my time working with kids but not necessarily working with parents,” he said. “There was a problem right there.”
Hoyos said he focuses on awareness and building community support, which requires building trust with parents who may harbor a lot of suspicion about outsiders. His teaching experience and his Hispanic background help build common ground, he said.
“In order to … develop trust, having that Hispanic background, the same ethnic background – when I’m telling them that I finished university in Mexico and went through the same educational system that they did in Mexico – that makes a connection between them and me,” he said.
What began with piercing questions for one group of parents ends with black graduation robes for another. Enriqueta Di Santos steps onto a stage and looks out over the cafeteria of Bostrom Alternative High School in west Phoenix. It’s graduation day for the 20 parents standing before her in a row – the first group to graduate from Bostrom.
The parents take their seats to “Pomp and Circumstance” as their children and family members watch.
“A lot of these parents have never graduated from anything,” Di Santos says. “I love it when the school provides gowns because they take it much more seriously.”
Parents are called to the stage to receive diplomas and medals. Many share hugs and tears.
The ceremony’s speakers include the school’s principal, the facilitator who taught the parents, and – as is customary – one of the parents, Felix Arambula.
Arambula speaks in Spanish as Di Santos translates.
“We learned so much about education in this country and how to plan the steps for high school graduation,” Arambula says. “Thank you very much for supporting our attendance at this wonderful American Dream Academy.”
Arambula’s son, Emanuel, a high school senior who will attend his own gradution in a few weeks, walks to the stage and hugs his father. He says he’s proud of his parents for participating and has seen them change since the program began.
“It makes them talk more about school, which is a good thing,” Emanuel says. “It showed me that they really wanted me to go to college.”
Emanuel would be the family’s first to attend college. He says he wants to study physical education at a community college but may transfer to Arizona State University after a couple of years.
For his father, it’s a relief to no longer feel lost when planning for college, and he says the classes motivated him to get his son there.
“I’m better able to talk with Emanuel about school,” Felix says. “We’re going to get him into college.”