Senior Fellow Esmeralda Herrera’s education came in the form of an inner city school in the South Bronx. At thirteen, she strongly believed that any kind of education was valuable. For a time, Esmeralda believed that if she worked hard enough, she could repay her mother for the opportunity she had lost, by earning a college degree. However, upon her arrival to college, the education gap hit Esmeralda hard and heavy, like an 18-wheeler truck.
She did not realize that something as simple as lacking a library in her high school would be so impactful. Or that only having segregated classrooms, as hers only had Black and Caribbean Latinos, could make her so ignorant of others. The lack of education in her high school impacted her enough to fail out of her mother’s dream of getting a college education.
Esmeralda’s own experiences as well as the experiences of the students she served inspired her Action Project, Bridging the Hispanic Achievement Gap.
She did not realize that something as simple as lacking a library in her high school would be so impactful.
Many of the students who Esmeralda served are Latino, some are immigrants and most of them have decided that college or even high school is simply not for them. Currently, the dropout rate for Hispanics is about 18 percent, nearly three times the rate of white students and 8 percent higher than black students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Native-born Hispanics have a 10 percent dropout rate, but the dropout rates are even higher for Hispanic students in urban schools across the nation, often approaching 35 percent in Los Angeles schools, for example.
Esmeralda’s Action Project chose to target a small group of 15 senior Latino students who had a high possibility of not graduating high school. Her project was to create a one class curriculum that combines Spanish and English for students and prepares them for college. During the class, students were encouraged to combine their identity with politics, as well as encouraged to talk in whatever language they chose. Through this course, students felt comfortable enough to learn the nuts and bolts of Democracy. Not everything was covered, but enough for the students to understand the importance of voting and the need to have representatives who come from their backgrounds to make a difference in government. The students then felt obligated to make a pledge to finish high school.
The achievement gap in academic performance between academically at-risk minorities and white students has been a concern for many decades now.
Esmeralda feels that “It’s a troubling fact that Latino Americans and African Americans, for example, earn lower grades on average than their white peers and are much more likely to drop out of high school.”
Part of the problem of supporting students from bilingual households comes from curriculums that downplay the vital interaction of their two languages, English and Spanish, in the brains of students who live in predominantly Spanish-speaking or bilingual households.
During the class, students were encouraged to combine their identity with politics, as well as encouraged to talk in whatever language they chose.
The failure to make any progress in moving more Latino students successfully through college suggests that what we have been doing to close achievement gaps is not working. This fact has enormous consequences for the United States, as the job market continues to demand more education and Latinos continue to make up a larger and larger portion of the workforce. But when it comes to how our educational system is educating students of color, many say it serves as a model of what not to do. Esmeralda strives to change the statistics and the norms, one student at a time.