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Closing Orange County's Latino Achievement Gap

Fifth Annual Community Summit Addresses Theme of Sin Fronteras: Beyond Boundaries

Sept. 23, 2013

crowd of people, including many standing, in a large room.

More than 800 campus and community members attended the fifth annual Closing the Latino Achievement Gap Summit at Cal State Fullerton.

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Almost 800 campus and community people gathered Friday, Sept. 20, for the fifth annual summit conference on closing Orange County's Latino achievement gap, held this year at Cal State Fullerton. 

Photos of the daylong program can be seen here.

"The theme of the summit, 'Sin Fronteras: Beyond Boundaries,' speaks to the imperative to address one of the most important civil rights issues of our time," said CSUF President Mildred García in her welcoming remarks to conference attendees, "the need to address and promote educational equity in all communities, with the focus on the underserved and underrepresented."

García was honorary co-chair of the event, along with California State Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who helped organize the first such event in 2009.

In her remarks, Quirk-Silva noted that since 2009, Orange County has seen an increase in the number of Latinos who are graduating high school and are college eligible. "This is a good sign — but we still have a lot of work to do. In Orange County right now, 38 percent of all male students graduate from high school and are college eligible, compared to only 22 percent of Latino males," Quirk-Silva said.

"For female students in Orange County, 49 percent graduate high school and are college eligible, while only 32 percent of high school Latinas graduate and are college eligible."

Al Mijares, superintendent of the Orange County Department of Education, gave the conference's keynote address.

Why is closing the Latino achievement gap still an issue? he asked. Mijares believes there are four "seismic" reasons for this: low expectations, linguistic and language challenges, bicultural characteristics and a lack of political will.

"Low expectations are pervasive in the Latino community," he said. "We also know that students often capitulate to the lowest common denominator." The goal, he believes, is to stress rigor in classrooms. As an example, Mijares spoke of some Denver high schools where marginal students were placed in AP courses. "Of course, people were upset and saying, 'But they'll fail!' Well, the response of the teacher was, 'They are failing now! Why not have them 'fail up?'' Within a three-year period, participation in AP classes in those high schools increased threefold."

He was quick to point out that the Latino community also has to develop higher expectations for students.

Mijares recalled a conversation he had with a Latino elementary teacher who had dropped out of school and then returned to his studies. "His mother's attitude was, 'You have a car. You have a job. Why do you need to go to college?'" he said. "We need to be intentional and exhibit moral courage. We need to raise the bar higher not just in schools but within our community."

In terms of linguistic challenges, Mijares pointed out problems of non-English speaking children.

"They are afraid they'll incorrectly pronounce words and others will make fun of them," he said. "So girls just twirl their hair and won't talk. Boys get angry. And the students fall farther behind because they don't understand what's expected of them. What we need are bilingual, bicultural certified teachers. We see dual-immersion programs that are very successful and help students transcend language barriers."

The third barrier to success, according to Mijares, is "bicultural challenges."

"Latinos' language, dress and social customs may be different," he said. "This requires schools to work with parents. I used to work with migrant families and once I met with a group of parents and asked, 'How many of you believe if your children are good students and work hard, they can go on to a university and become a doctor?' Not one hand went up.

"I have worked with people who provide scholarships and mentor students only to discover that the families of these students don't want them to leave home for educational opportunities. Parents need to make room in their thinking and understand that a college education is desirable and possible for their children."

The final barrier is political will.

"Do we have the political will to educate all of our children?" Mijares asked. "Politics has often been reduced to sound bites and when that happens, education suffers. Affluent schools can weather budget cuts better than poor schools. As a nation, we must recognize that schools must be places to teach students to read, write and solve problems. We need AP classes in all our schools so our students can achieve even more. We have to hold ourselves accountable to ensure that less affluent schools receive adequate resources so poor children have the same opportunities as more affluent students."

An educator for 34 years, Mijares formerly served as a principal in the Moreno Valley Unified School District and as superintendent of the Bakersfield and Coachella Valley Unified school districts. He is the chairperson of Orange County Encuentros Leadership.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs José L. Cruz closed the session by recapping some of the day's notable discussion items.

"We have heard many powerful stories here today," he said. "I know you all have been working very hard but we need to work harder. Our future depends on investing in schools that need it most, advocating for multilingualism and a new vision of Latino success, and empowering parents to learn more about the educational process so they can work with their children.

"We need to make educational achievement in the Latino community not only possible but probable."

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