Latino achievement gap persists in Arizona

Students gather around tables to work on homework at Bioscience High School on Aug. 31, 2016. (Nick Serpa/DD)

Despite rising graduation rates among Hispanic students, the Latino achievement gap still persists in Arizona.

According to the 2016 Arizona Minority Student Progress Report, “There are clear gaps in university eligibility by racial/ethnic groups as White and Asian Pacific American students show much higher eligibility rates than do American Indian, Black and Hispanic students.”

“Everyone in the state should be concerned about that because you can’t possibly have a strong and prosperous economy for everyone in the state, if half of your state is failing in terms of their educational background,” said James Garcia, director of communications for the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

This lingering problem, Garcia said, will not just affect Hispanic kids and Hispanic neighborhoods but the whole economy.

“These students, 15 years from now will become the main breadwinners in their families and a really substantial portion of the workforce in the state,” Garcia said.

Some of these students attend Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD), which has a Hispanic population of almost 82 percent. Just over 52 percent of students in the same district speak Spanish as their primary language at home and 81 percent of students qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

“One of the things that we are conscious about when we hire new teachers is that we want them to be culturally competent,” said Craig Pletenik, PUHSD communications director. “We think it is important that our students have role models and our teachers know where they are coming from.”

Pletenik said it is not an achievement gap but more of an opportunity gap, because some of these Hispanic students are low-income and come from households where their parents did not graduate from high school.

“Our goal here is to really break that cycle,” said Pletenik.

The district implemented the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) to help solve this problem. This program works with students to prepare them for success in high school and teaches them how to prepare for college.

Anna Ruiz, North High School AVID Coordinator, was one of the first teachers to start implementing the AVID program within PUHSD 10 years ago.

Ruiz said the Latino achievement gap is something educators have been talking about for a long time and that many of the factors are cultural.

“A lot of it is cultural, still to this day, Ruiz said. “You know, I have female students, who are being told by their parents, not all and it’s not a large number, but they are being told not to go to college.”

Ruiz said the achievement is more common with female students because some of their parents don’t see college as useful way to spend their time after high school. She also said every year North High School focuses on getting parents more involved in the college application process to help combat this issue.

“The reality is that education is perhaps the single most determining factor in terms of any individual’s ability to earn income,” said Garcia.

Some of the students in the AVID program face additional challenges because of their immigration status. Five of the 26 seniors in the AVID program at North High School are DACA students.

RELATED: High school DACA students face an uncertain future

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was enacted by former President Barack Obama in 2012. The program grants protection from deportation and the opportunity to apply for work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

After President Donald Trump announced his decision to rescind the program on Sept. 15 many DACA recipients are left with an uncertain future.

“When those kids come from Mexico or other countries come here, who’ve experienced hardships that American citizens have not, they get it, they understand how important education is,” Ruiz said.

Undocumented students, even those with DACA status, are not eligible to receive federal financial aid even if their family financially qualifies. DACA students, however, do receive in-state tuition in Arizona. The limited financial aid opportunities can further limit these students college options.

Ruiz said these DACA students are fully qualified students who want to go to college but are currently in a “limbo” stage concerning DACA, making their college opportunities limited or non-existent.

Garcia said the state must continue to correct the educational setbacks Latinos face in order to continue to grow the state’s economy.

“In order for the Latino community to remain an important and valued contributor to the state and its economy, we have to be engaged in the value of education,” said Garcia.

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