Latino Policy Forum Puts Education at the Top of Agenda

Article excerpt

If we cannot overcome the challenges facing Latino education, the result could be a Latino underclass with dire implications for the country's economic future and social structure. The need to improve Latino achievement, one of the nation's most pressing education issues, was the focus of the first-ever Latino Education Summit organized by the Latino Policy Forum.

"We are not only talking about the future of Latinos - we also are talking about the future of llie country," said Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, research and policy analyst for the foruin.

The summit, held earlier this year at the City Colleges of Chicago's Muro Velasquez Institute, was convened to discuss barriers that limit Latinos' academic achievement and, ultimately, their economic success. More than 200 educators and policymakers attended the event to hear about intervention strategies needed to produce change.

"We invited a broad range of stakeholders, including community leaders and educators," said Navarro. "It is the culmination of our strategy to move into K-12 as part of uur effort, to ensure Latino student success in early éducation years."

The Latino Policy Forum is a Chicago-hascd organization founded in 1988 with an original mission of working to change policies and procedures related to housing discrimination in Chicago. Over the years, the organization has expanded its scope and now advocates on a variety of issues important to the well-being of the Latino community, including immigration, health, jobs community safety and education.

Its education agenda started with an early childhood program aimed at increasing participation among younger Latino children. The forum currently is examining a systemwide approach to improve academic outcomes for Latino students at all levels. The ultimate goal is to get more Latinos to enter and persist in college.

Keynote speaker for the summit was Dr. Frances Contreras, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington. Contreras has been concerned about what she calls a "looming social and economic disaster" that could result from lagging academic skills and high dropout rates of Latino students.

"The future of this country is closely intertwined with the educational and economic future of Latinos," she said. ''That's why we must look at the K-12 sector policies that continue to play a role in holding hack Latino students."

If current trends are not reversed. Contreras sees an undereducated and underemployed class of Latinos with lower income levels. The consequence will be a negative effect on lax revenues, thus impacting Social Security and social sendees as well as funding for amenities such as parks and libraries. That is why it is critical to increase the earning power of Latinos and other minorities through higher education.

"We know that college graduates earn much more in a lifetime than those without degrees," said Contreras.

This year, a study released by the Georgetown Center on Education on the Workforce showed that people with bachelor's degrees make 84 percent more in their lifetime than high school graduates, up from 75 percent in 1999. The study aso predicted that 63 percent of American jobs will require some sort of postsecondary education or training by 2018.

"We cannot afford to not invest in me future of Latinos and all students," said Contreras.

Contreras is recognized as a leading authority on issues of equity and access for underrepresented students in the education pipeline. Her research addresses transitions between K-12 and higher education, community college transfer, faculty diversity, affirmative action in higher education, and the role of the public policy arena in higher education access for underserved students of color. She serves on the boards of the Marnarci Journal of Hispanic Policy, LEAP, and the ÂCLU of Washington.

Although many of her studies have dealt with factors affecting how students in middle and high school transition to college, Contreras now believes the focus on improving Latino educational achievement should target earlier interventions. …