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Mentors pay dividends for Mass. Latino youth

Daniela Caride | 11/19/2008, 3:42 a.m.
Massiel De Los Santos (left) and Camille Marcos pose for a photo at Marcos’ law office in Boston. Thanks in part to the help of her mentor Marcos, De Los Santos has become an honor student, president of her school’s Talented and Gifted Latinos Program and a scholarship recipient with plans of becoming a lawyer. Daniela Caride

According to research published this year by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at UMass-Boston, Latino enrollment in Massachusetts public schools has increased by 22.7 percent over the last five years, making them the fastest-growing group of enrollees.

But Latinos have the highest rates of absence of any ethnic group in the state. They also rank first in the rate of in-school suspensions, in which disruptive students are taken out of class and supervised by an educator in the school building, and second in out-of-school suspensions, in which students are told they cannot come to school.

“The result is that Latino children are missing a tremendous amount of schooling,” according to the study.

Latinos have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group in the state. More than one-quarter of Latino students that start the ninth grade in Massachusetts high schools drop out before graduation. That contributes to the lowest high school graduation rate of any Massachusetts ethnic group — 57 percent.

“They’re trying to orient themselves into a new society and it’s difficult for them, so they just drop out,” says Mora.

De Los Santos says she was lucky to have a family that gave her no other option than to study hard and go to college.

“That’s your job,” she says, explaining her mom’s frame of mind. “You don’t work, you have to do good in school.”

But even though she has plenty of support, transitioning from a Dominican to an American setting was hard for De Los Santos. American culture struck her as “very, very different,” and looking back, she wishes she had learned English at an earlier age.

“At first I thought [taking classes in Spanish] helped me because I didn’t know English and I was comfortable with other Hispanic kids,” she says. “But I feel it ended up hurting me … because I ended up learning English in sixth grade, seventh grade.”

This situation is becoming increasingly common in Massachusetts. The Latino population in the Commonwealth has grown consistently since 1960. According to a Gastón Institute study, it “more than tripled” between 1980 and 2000, and today numbers 479,000.

Education plays an important role because children make up a greater percentage of the Latino population (38 percent) than of the state overall (25.4 percent). Among children younger than 5, says the Gastón Institute, “the difference is even sharper.” The proportion of Latinos is almost twice as high as the general population that age — 10.8 percent compared to 6.3 percent.

One factor serving to widen the educational gap for Latinos is that the group also has lower wages. Latinos remain concentrated in low-paying and low-skill professions and are underrepresented in high-wage and professional positions, which “has significant implications for the economic wellbeing of Latino families,” according to the Gastón study.

Even worse, this income gap is a persistent problem. Despite overall increases in the amount of money workers are taking home, says the study, “Latino families are consistently lagging behind the state median in terms of income.”