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Conference Addresses Education Reform in Hispanic Community

By J. Lyn Carl,

Washinton, D.C. –

With the dropout rate for Hispanic students almost four times higher than the rate for Anglo students and more than double the rate for African-Americans, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today convened a meeting of more than 200 Hispanic leaders from across the country with a goal of encouraging Hispanic students to stay in school while increasing their academic achievements.

The two-day session, "Pathways to Hispanic Family Learning," focused on the importance of involvement of family and community in the education of students and on finding effective ways to provide valuable education information in both English and Spanish to Hispanic Americans.

"Today, one in seven Americans is of Hispanic descent, with well over 40 million Hispanic Americans in the country," said Spellings, noting that the Hispanic population also is far younger than the rest of the United States' population. "It's a baby boom."

She urged those attending the conclave to help spread the word among the Hispanic population regarding their rights under the "No Child Left Behind Act." While test scores and achievement levels are on the rise, said the Education Secretary, officials have set 2014 as a completion date for ensuring that every child in the country can read and do math at their grade level.

"Like millions of other students," she said, "Hispanic students were subjected to what President (George W.) Bush likes to call 'the soft bigotry of low expectations.' No one expected them to learn, and as a result, many did not."

To turn that trend around, Spellings said "No Child Left Behind" put special focus on how Hispanics and other minority children are performing in school. "The law calls for annual assessments of all children in grades 3-8 in both reading and math. These assessments help us catch problems early by showing us which students need extra help and where." It also holds schools accountable for reaching out to families to make them more aware of what goes on in their children's schools and to encourage them to take an active role in their children's educations.

"Parents need this information. And they shouldn't have to bend over backwards to get it," said the Education Secretary.

Spellings cited a success story involving a family from the Education Secretary's home state of Texas. She noted that Maria Leija of Dallas came to Texas from Mexico in 1977 and still speaks only some English. "In the days before 'No Child Left Behind,' she once received a letter in English about a problem her daughter was having in school. And when she came to the school to ask what it meant, no one could translate the message into Spanish. Thankfully, Maria no longer has to guess what letters mean these days. She says, 'Thanks to this law, I'm very comfortable. When the letters come, the other side is in Spanish, and I'm not worried that I don't know what's happening with my children in school.'"

Giving families more information arms them "with the power to become real advocates for their children," says Spellings. She urged participants in the meeting to participate in a new public-private partnership - the Partnership for Hispanic Family Learning. Education is important to most Hispanic families, said the Education Secretary. Thus, it is important that Hispanics leave high school with the educational tools they need for college and that families are educated on issues such as finding available financial aid. "We simply cannot be satisfied with seeing only one in 10 Hispanic Americans graduate from college," said Spellings.

Urging attendees to join the new partnership to help educate Hispanics regarding their education rights, Spellings said, "We need you to be advocates for our children. Politicians and school officials need to hear your voice. We need you to take a stand."

Other speakers for the two-day event included U.S. Treasurer Anna Cabral; Ruben Barrales, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs; Daniel Garza from the White House Office of Public Liaison; and Adam Chavarria, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

Education should be the "uniting force" in America, said Chavarria. "An educated America is a strong America, and in order to achieve this goal, we must continue the progress made under 'No Child Left Behind.' To finally close the achievement gap and stop the exceedingly high dropout rate that has plagued the Hispanic community for far too long, we must engage Hispanic families - la familia - as full partners in this effort. Working together, we can and will raise Hispanic student achievement across America."