The struggle to graduate
Several trends add to the high dropout rates of foreign-born high school students.
By JOSE CARDENAS
Published November 9, 2005
CLEARWATER - It was first period on Tuesday, and principal Nick Grasso had a question for 11 Hispanic students gathered in a conference room at Clearwater High School.
Why, he asked, do immigrant students keep to themselves and avoid social clubs?
Too often, students don't know English, said 17-year-old Luis Martinez, who moved from Mexico just a few months ago.
"For me it's different because my cousin is American," the senior said. But "other people who are Mexican are afraid of Americans."
Grasso has long pondered how to improve academic performance among the growing number of Hispanic students at Clearwater High. To hear firsthand the barriers the students face, he has started a series of focus groups with about 10 students, primarily immigrants from Mexico.
In a city where the Mexican population is still largely foreign-born, Grasso's efforts may be well-placed, according to a study the Pew Hispanic Center released last week on the high dropout rates of immigrant teenagers.
Clearwater High has about 2,000 students, 10.7 percent of whom are Hispanic, the most among Pinellas high schools. That's nearly double what it was four years ago.
Other schools in the Tampa Bay area have more Hispanics. At Leto High School in Tampa, for instance, 56 percent of students are immigrants.
The Pew study looked at nearly 1-million 15- to 17-year-old students born in 40 countries.
It found that those who came to the United States after age 7 - and had a spotty education back home - have dramatically high dropout rates here.
That finding rang true to educators on both sides of the bay.
"Those who had some form of a formal education in their country where the children are made to go to school and they can see the importance of an education, no doubt in my mind, they are the ones that do better and are the ones that are able to bridge the gap," said Leto High principal Daniel Bonilla.
The largest group of immigrants in the Pew study were Mexicans. The study found that half came to America as older children. Those who were not up to grade-level in Mexico had an 83 percent likelihood of dropping out here - by far the largest percentage of any immigrant group.
Immigrant children who were up to speed in their countries or arrived here by second grade had dropout rates not much higher than that of native-born children, which is 3.3 percent.
In Clearwater, the graduation rate for Hispanic students dropped from 58 percent in 2003 to 43 percent in 2004, according to its No Child Left Behind report. By comparison, the rate for whites dropped from 74 percent to 72.
Grasso calls his gatherings the Bridging the Gap Council.
"Why is there a lack of Hispanic mentors?" he asked the students on Tuesday.
"Maybe they want to help but they don't read English," offered senior Adrian Hernandez, 17, who moved from Mexico three years ago.
Grasso said English has surfaced as the root problem for students and their families.
"If you speak English at your house, you think you're forgetting your own culture," Hernandez said.
But the session on Tuesday revealed that bigger problems are also on the students' minds.
When Grasso asked why more of them don't aim for college, junior Oscar Patricio, 16, answered, "I think it's the legal status."
Said Hernandez: "The first thing you see on the form to go to college is the Social Security number. If you don't have that, you can't go."
One of the community members Grasso has invited to the meetings is Robin Gomez, a city auditor familiar with the Hispanic community. He was born in the Mexican state of Hidalgo and was raised in the United States.
For some families, a focus on work, not education, is one reason students drop out, said Gomez, who has tutored at Kennedy Middle School.
"Once they are in high school, in ninth, 10th ... at some point in high school, a percentage of them are not finishing," Gomez said.
In Clearwater, most families came from rural areas in central Mexico where it is common to drop out of school as early as fourth grade, Gomez said. That's because high schools are in cities, and students must pay to attend.
In Hidalgo, he said, rural residents have to travel to the city of Ixmiquilpan to attend high school.
The Pew study, which used data from the 2000 census, found that 8 percent of teenagers in the United States are foreign-born but account for 25 percent of dropouts.
Many teens from Mexico and Central America come to America to work, said Richard Fry, author of the Pew study. Many never enroll in school, or they drop out to work in construction and agriculture - a trend that sounds familiar to some local educators.
"Many of them don't come with their mother or their father," said Carmen Sorondo, Title I Migrant Program supervisor for Hillsborough schools. "They come with a cousin or an uncle. Part of what I do is recruit not only the family but (the) student who is of age to go to school."
Starting next week, the Bridging the Gap Council will begin working on solutions. Grasso hopes the group comes up with answers that will help other schools in Pinellas.
He may not be able to do anything about immigration problems students face, he said. But with the help of the district or the city, he said, it might be possible to provide things like more bilingual teachers or orientation sessions on American schools.
For his part, Gomez has started looking for professionals to serve as Hispanic mentors.
In a few years, Gomez said, English won't be an issue for Hispanic students in Clearwater because most will be native-born. But a root problem that may still need to be addressed is raising the value of education in some Hispanic households.
"The challenge becomes, again, the parents' support at home," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.PERCENTAGE OF PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS WHO ARE HISPANIC
Hillsborough: 25 percent.
Pinellas: 7.3 percent.HISPANIC POPULATION
Hillsborough: 17.9 percent.
Pinellas: 4.5 percent.
* In each county, more than a third of Hispanic residents are foreign-born.