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Conference addresses need to improve Latino student achievement

Juan SepĂșlveda speaking from the podium at Phoenix's Hyatt Regency Hotel at the
March 02, 2011

‘“Winning the future,’ as President Barack Obama outlined in his recent State of the Union address, will mean out-educating, out-innovating, and out-building the rest of the world,” noted Juan Sepúlveda in his Feb. 28 keynote speech at the 2011 Leadership for Equity and Excellence Forum in Phoenix, “and this success will be inextricably linked to improving educational success in the Latino community.”

Sepúlveda, who is executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, shared some sobering statistics with the nearly 200 educational leaders, equity specialists, and university students who attended this annual conference organized by ASU’s Equity Alliance, a center in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Social Transformation co-directed by Professors Alfredo Artiles and Elizabeth Kozleski.

“Today, 52 million Americans – 16.5 percent of the population­­ – are Latino. Twenty-five percent of our pre-K children in this country are Latino. But 50 percent of Latino students are not graduating from high school,” he said. “Of those who do make it to college, half need remedial help. Only 13 percent of adults in the Latino community have an undergraduate degree.”

The stage is set early for low educational attainment levels, with under half of Latino children participating in early-childhood education programs.   

The urgency of Sepúlveda’s mission to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for Hispanics is great, especially given the administration’s goal of moving the United States from 9th in the world back to number one, by 2020, in percentage of citizens who earn an academic credential beyond a high school diploma.

Over the last 18 months, he and his team have crisscrossed the country, making people aware that this White House Initiative exists, reaching across communities and geographic boundaries and into businesses and faith-based organizations to help create public-private partnerships that will connect the people and the resources needed to tackle this national challenge.

“I’m a big believer in crowd-sourcing,” Sepúlveda said, “using a lot of brains to fugure things out, like how do we share budget and process? How do we give community people a voice in how policy is crafted along the way? Of the 100-plus communities we’ve visited, 30 have already signed on as partners.”

The White House Initiative also encourages states to compete for “Race to the Top” funds, a $4.35 billion fund established by the Obama administration in 2009 to reward education innovation, reform, and assessment.

“Districts can also apply on their own;” he emphasized, “if they’re ready to step it up but are in states that have decided not to play, they can apply directly.”   

When asked by a member of the audience about what his office was doing to help undocumented students, Sepúlveda talked about their ongoing efforts to gain support for the Dream Act, which at different points in time has had the support of as many as 11 Republican senators, and expressed sadness at the wasted potential in the 55,000-85,000 kids that fall into this category. 

But he also expressed a strong sense of disappointment in Americans’ inability to find the same depth of passion for the needs of the 12 million Hispanic children of school-age that are U.S. citizens as they have for the Dream Act.

“We need to break out of the cycle of acceptance of under-achievement for Hispanic students,” Sepúlveda cautioned. “People need to become passionate about the fact that the biggest bulk of kids who are facing equity and achievement issues are documented citizens.”