Lucy Flores’ brush with the law came at an early age. Her mother had left home when she was just 9 years old and her father, who only had a third-grade education, had to work several jobs to support Flores and her three siblings. The absence of Flores’ parents made it easier for her to gravitate toward an unsavory crowd.
“By the time I was 12, even though I had been in gifted and childhood education, the lack of support and role models and equity finally pushed me in the direction of gangs,” says Flores, a first-generation American whose parents migrated to the U.S. from Mexico.
She was arrested for theft repeatedly and placed on probation several times. Then following an incident when she stole a car and led police on a slow chase, she was convicted of grand theft auto and sent to a juvenile facility for nine months. She was not yet 15. She eventually dropped out of high school.
A report issued Thursday by the National Women’s Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attempts to call attention to the high secondary school dropout rate of Latinas and the factors contributing to the dismal number. The study, which surveyed hundreds of high-school age Latinas throughout the country, cites statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. The data shows that 41 percent of Latinas do not complete high school in four years or drop out altogether.
“Latinas are the fastest growing group of female school-age youth,” says Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center in Washington D.C. “If Latinas continue to drop out at these rates, we will surely have a huge work force without education and that’s going to be a huge problem for this country.”
The study blames the high dropout rate on a variety of factors that include a need for many Latinos to work to help support their families as soon as they come of age. Latinas often have increased responsibilities at home like having to take care of their younger siblings, the study notes. For many, this means having to sacrifice their studies for domestic duties. A high teen pregnancy rate among Latinas also makes it difficult for many of these young women to continue with their education, the study said.
The study cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, which show that 53 percent of Latinas become pregnant before age 20.
The study offers a variety of recommendations to address this crisis. They include getting policymakers and government agencies to invest more in Latino children through high-quality early learning programs, matching Latinas with positive role models and making school environments more inclusive, particularly for parents who are immigrants and who may not be as comfortable with the English language.
“In talking to girls and teachers and counselors we did hear that one of the barriers to parental involvement is that a lot of parents who were not educated in the U.S. are unfamiliar with the way the system works and are not aware of requirements for graduation and college readiness,” Kaufmann says. “A lot of schools are not doing enough to reach out to Latino parents and get them involved. We heard about meetings at school where there are Latino populations but no interpreters.”
Both groups also call for improved strategies to reduce teen pregnancies as well as to provide support for pregnant teenagers.
In all, “what we’re focusing on is just making sure that there is more of an awareness that a problem does exist,” says Veronica Rivera, a staff attorney at MALDEF who focuses on education issues. “The other is definitely working to make sure that there is funding and resources that are geared towards helping Latinas graduate from high school and getting career ready and going on to college.”
Rivera said MALDEF plans to work with congressional leaders in enacting the Development Release and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) act, which intends to provide financial aid to students who are not U.S. citizens but have attended U.S. schools.
There is a happy ending to Flores’ story. She earned her GED and with the guidance of several mentors enrolled in a college at 23. Now 29, Flores is a third-year law student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and could become the first Latina elected to the Nevada Legislature this fall. But she knows her story is the exception.
“The overarching message is that we are losing so much potential and capable young people who could be big contributors to our society,” Flores says. “It’s simply a waste. I could have very easily gone in another direction. In terms of public policy and the money we spend on education our attitude needs to change. It’s not spending. It’s an investment.”
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