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National NOW Times >> Fall, 2001 >> Article

Latina Girls’ High School Drop-Out Rate Highest in U.S.

by Olga Vives, Vice President-Action, with research by Kristy McCray, Communications Intern

The much publicized Education Reform Act, the first bill introduced in Congress by allies of George W. Bush, languishes in Congress without the votes necessary to become law, and the prospects for passing such legislation at this point seem slim.

“Leave no child behind”, a phrase lifted by Bush from the Children’s Defense Fund, rings hollow. His performance as Governor of Texas reveals the hypocrisy of his words: the state ranks among the highest in high school dropout rates. Thirteen percent of Hispanic students drop out of high school compared to 11 percent of African-American and 6 percent of white students.

Latina girls leave high school at a much higher rate than any other group. This has added significance with the release of the 2000 census data which showed that Hispanics are virtually tied with African-Americans as the largest minority group in the United States and at the current rate will be, by the year 2045, the largest people-of-color community in the U.S.
The reasons Latina girls leave high school before graduation are many. One major factor is pregnancy. A third of 9- to 15-year-old girls surveyed by the Academy of Educational Development cited pregnancy or marriage as the reason for dropping out of high school. The former governor of Texas did little to improve his state’s teen pregnancy rate — in recent reports Texas ranked 46 of 50. And in 1997, Texas reported 52,728 births to girls ages 15-19; of those, 27,869 (52.8 percent of the total) were to Latina girls.

Other factors cited for the disproportionate high school drop-out rate of Latina girls are marriage, gender roles, stereotyping, family demands and economic status. Attitudes of teachers, a lack of proficiency in English, peer pressure, and a lack of role models are also contributing factors to this disturbing trend. Despite the alarming rate of drop-outs among Hispanic girls, there is no public outcry and little is being done to remedy this situation.

What Can Feminists Do?

First, we must bring the light of day to an education system that disadvantages Latina girls. Reportedly Latina girls are often viewed by educators as submissive underachievers. This takes on added significance when reinforced by family at home. There are inadequate vocational programs for Latinas, sometimes none at all, and they suffer sexual harassment in the schools in greater numbers than other girls. As a result of this harassment, students often stay home, cut class, or don’t contribute. They can’t concentrate on school work and suffer lowered self-esteem and self-confidence.

Bilingual services are non-existent or poor at many schools and this leads to disillusionment. There is a pervasive negative attitude of school personnel toward non-English languages and the people who speak them. A critical factor in promoting Latina success is a school staff that believes that all students can succeed—valuing their languages and cultures, providing sound counseling, and involving parents.

Educational programs at all levels are key to reversing the trend. The future of Latina girls who drop out is bleak. Many enter the workforce at below-minimum wage jobs, enter into marriages that often result in domestic abuse, and/or stay at home to care for younger siblings while their mothers work outside of the home. Their world is one of few options, of increasing hardship and submission. We must insist on solutions at all levels of our society.

Latina girls need to know their options, and need the support of family, schools and peers in taking non-traditional career paths. Events in highs school or college campuses that feature successful Latinas in non-traditional fields can inspire Latina girls to think about their future and career options.

NOW members can lobby school boards for better curriculum and programs for Latina girls and special assistance/counseling programs aimed at reinforcing positive images. Feminists can take action to bring about real educational reforms to address these problems in our communities and to bring public education to a level of excellence for all children and young adults, helping them achieve individual goals.

“Leave no child behind” must be more than hollow words; there is a real educational crisis in this country that is affecting children of color in disproportionate numbers. The political leaders who rubber-stamped the largest tax cut in history must be brought to account for its impact on the majority of the people of this country, those who bear the tax burden and receive the fewest services. It is an outrage that there are over 400,000 children living in poverty in the U.S., most in households headed by women, and particularly women of color. Tax dollars needed to address the disparities in our society have been given back to those that need them the least.
Erika Cerda, in a recent interview in The Dallas Morning News, gave as a reason for dropping out of high school that her “teachers were not explaining things very well.” She “never fit in” at Sunset High School. “Kids were making fun of me,” she said, because she was poor. We in NOW can make a difference in Erika’s life by bringing about the social justice that eludes her.

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