The New York Times
March 25, 2001, Sunday
Troubling Label for Hispanics: 'Girls Most Likely to Drop Out'
By DANA CANEDY
Sitting on a leopard-print couch in a house that shudders as planes land at nearby Miami airport, Ady Solis cannot quite put her finger on when her childhood began to slip away. In her pudgy face and nervous giggle, there are still signs of the girl she should be at 16, but just barely. Gone are the days when she was simply somebody's little girl, somebody's promising pupil.
''I don't feel like I'm a child,'' said Ady, a Nicaraguan immigrant who dropped out of school last year and lives in Miami with her Cuban-American boyfriend, their 10-month-old daughter and his family. ''I feel like a grown lady, you know,'' she said, balancing her baby on her knee.
Ady is an example of a troubling trend -- Hispanic girls dropping out of school at a far greater rate than any other group of girls in the United States. According to government data, 26 percent of Hispanic girls leave school without a diploma, compared with 13 percent of black girls and 6.9 percent of white girls. The only group that has a higher dropout rate among all students is Hispanic boys. Thirty-one percent of Hispanic boys drop out, compared with 12.1 percent of black boys and 7.7 percent of white boys.
In addition, Hispanic girls leave school earlier than all other groups of young people, male or female, and are the least likely to return, according to a recent study, ''Latinas in School,'' published by the American Association of University Women.
The high rate of failure has taken on an added significance with the release of the 2000 census data, which showed that Hispanics were now tied with blacks as the largest minority group in the United States and are expected to become the largest minority group.
As the numbers grow, the Latino population's experience in virtually every aspect of current American life, from education to employment, has ever greater implications for the nation as a whole. ''The demographics indicate that Latinos will very soon be the largest education group in this country,'' said Gloria Rodriguez, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton on Hispanic education and is the founder of Avance, a nonprofit family support and education program for Hispanics in San Antonio. ''Many of our children are not succeeding,'' Ms. Rodriguez said, ''and that is going to impact us all.“
The gap between Hispanic boys and girls and other students in educational attainment can be attributed to a range of factors, including high rates of poverty and language barriers. But girls in particular face special social and cultural pressures that prompt many to leave school without a diploma.
''We definitely have a very schizophrenic framework and concept where you have both the Old World model of what a female should be and then that conflicts with the modern-day version, the Americanized version that tells us you can be a mother and have a career,'' said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida. ''There is a lot of confusion and a lot of identity crises going on in the young Latina psyche,'' Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, a former teacher, said.
Until now, problems with girls have gone largely unnoticed. ''With the Hispanic dropout rate, people tend to think of macho gang-member guys,'' Ms. Lehtinen said. ''They don't tend to see that Hispanic females are also dropping out.''
Certainly, the majority of Hispanic girls graduate from high school, and those who do not are overwhelmingly new immigrants at the lowest end of the economic spectrum. ''There are regional differences and subgroups within the Latina population,'' said Angela Ginorio, co-author of the American Association of University Women study on Latina girls. ''It is not a consistent picture across the board.''
But some parts of that picture are stirring concern. And researchers, education officials and families are devoting increasing attention to the high dropout rates for girls.
''There is a high concentration of poverty in this population, and many of these kids start out with disadvantages,'' said Raul Gonzalez, a former teacher who is education policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a nonprofit agency that provides social services for Latinos. In addition, Mr. Gonzalez said: ''Many Hispanic immigrants are either economic refugees from Mexico or war refugees from Central America. Thus they come to this country very often with little schooling.''
The result, Mr. Gonzalez and others say, is that more and more poor Latino immigrants often end up in schools where overwhelmed teachers have trouble instructing students who are struggling simultaneously to learn American history and English as a second language.
Carlos Rodriguez, a research scientist at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit sociological research organization in Washington, and others cite teenage pregnancy and its attendant cultural factors as contributing to the dropout rate. ''Low-income Hispanic religious-oriented mothers may still tend not to talk to their daughters about abortion or birth control,'' Mr. Rodriguez said.
Ms. Rodriguez of Avance and others point to family demands. They cite the migrant worker who depends on the girls in his family to cook and clean while the men and boys tend to the field. Or the newly arrived immigrant mother who holds two jobs but relies on her older daughters to provide child care for younger siblings. For these families, the experts say, pushing education down on the list of priorities is a matter of survival.
That is what happened with Ady Solis, who instead of doing homework worked in her family's bakery. In eighth grade, she would sneak home after school just long enough to change out of the high heels she was not supposed to be wearing and into the comfortable shoes that would get her through another night of work. The next year, she passed up a school trip to Washington because she felt guilty using money her mother had scraped together. ''I wanted to help because my mother was working too much,'' Ady recalled.
While the power of economics is indisputable, there is another, less tangible explanation for the high dropout rate. In interview after interview, Hispanic girls cited the problem of mixed messages and expectations. Many girls caught between two worlds with often competing values said they simply give up.
''Everybody is changing the rules,'' said Rosa Talavera, a 17-year-old from Kendall, a suburb of Miami, who dropped out when she was a sophomore. ''We're supposed to be independent, but you still have that machismo factor in your brain.''
''I mean, in a way I hear that like, 'Be more traditional, be more like those classic girls in Nicaragua who hide behind their skirts,' '' Rosa said.
Her mother, a teacher whom Rosa regards as ''Americanized,'' has tried to reassure Rosa that it is all right to want a career and a boyfriend in that order. But her grandmother pleads with her to put on makeup and grow her hair long. Rosa finds the contradiction between her grandmother's wishes and her mother's views confusing.
''Especially for girls who have Hispanic parents and are first generation born in America, it is hard because, on the one side we're hearing, 'You should get married, you should have children and know how to cook for your man,' '' Rosa said. ''And on the other side of the story, we're hearing, 'You should get a career first.' So it's really hard to grasp what you should be doing.''
Vanessa Blanc, an 18-year-old Cuban-American, has been a friend of Rosa's since kindergarten. While she has stayed in school and plans to join the Air Force when she graduates, she says she understands the pressures that drove her friend to drop out.
''Some teachers do think Hispanic girls are going to end up pregnant and cooking for some guy,'' she said. ''That's the stereotype. That's what they see on TV. That's the image they create in their mind and they can't see beyond that. They don't expand their minds. And the sad part is that sometimes teachers' expectations of students can take them in the wrong path because they feel they won't disappoint anyone by dropping out. It's what's expected of them.''
Mr. Gonzalez of La Raza agrees. ''We may be inadvertently sending off signals that their education is not as important as becoming a wife or mother,'' he said.
Rossana Rosado, publisher of El Diario-La Prensa, the Spanish-language newspaper, said that many Latina girls had a limited number of publicly identifiable role models who defy traditional expectations.
''Women are still invisible in corporate structures,'' Ms. Rosado said, ''and Latinas are even more invisible,'' she said of the difficulty of finding someone to look up to. ''The impact of that on young girls is that it is hard for them to visualize themselves 10 years down the line or 20 years down the line. I think at some point when you are 12 or 13 you pretty much realize you're not going to be Jennifer and if you're not going to be Jennifer Lopez then what is there?''
Too many girls feel that there isn't anything beyond Jennifer Lopez, said Mr. Rodriguez of the American Institutes for Research. Mr. Rodriguez, who specializes in issues concerning Hispanic education, said: ''Among women who come through Ph.D programs, for example, or the medical profession, or any of the managerial professions, Hispanic representation has not been great. The impact has been the maintenance of stereotypical roles for girls.''
Martha Gonzalez, 20, is one who eventually overcame the stereotypes. Ms. Gonzalez, who moved to Los Angeles from Mexico when she was 4 and later joined a gang, says she dropped out after some teachers could not remember her name and went so far as to tell her they did not expect her to show up.
''As soon as you're born, or as soon as you come to the U.S., you're classified the minute they see you,'' Ms. Gonzalez said. '' 'You're Mexican. Let me guess: You're a dropout, you're pregnant.' ''
It was only after a stint working in her family's bakery that Ms. Gonzalez returned to school. ''I had to scrape floors and wash walls, and just do embarrassing things in front of everybody, and I was like, if my own family treats me like this, what makes me think another employer won't treat me like this,'' she said. ''I decided to take myself back to school and just left everything the way it was and walked out of my job.''
Ms. Gonzalez, who is now a sophomore at Los Angeles City College, said she realized that in certain ways she was an exception. ''There were about two or three of us out of 30 that made it,'' she said.