Hispanic students perform poorly on state tests and have lower graduation rates than Whites and Asians. In this series, the Fronteras Desk explores the Latino education achievement gap and finds some educators with innovative solutions.
LAS VEGAS -- In Las Vegas, the heart of the Latino community is Rancho High School. The school has become a campaign touchstone for politicians courting Hispanic voters. In fact, during the last presidential election, then candidate Barack Obama visited Rancho not once, but twice.
Yet when it comes to Latino students getting a diploma from the school, the graduation rate is just over 55 percent. In the face of those statistics, a campus club is creating a new paradigm for Latino achievement and leadership.
At the end of class on a Friday afternoon, students fill the halls, flirting and chatting in packs. A hall monitor yells, “Time to go guys, vámanos!” and blows his whistle to tell the students to clear out.
And most do. But one group stays. The Hispanic Student Union is always here meeting late on Fridays. There are almost 50 students here, out of about 2,000 Hispanic students at the school.
The club president, a petite senior named Debbie Rios, gives the meeting announcements about a fundraiser dance and donations for a needy family.
Officially, the club is about community service. But perhaps more importantly, the club steers Latino students to leadership roles, political activism, and ultimately, higher education.
The guest speaker at this meeting is a college student named Rosalyn Jimenez.
“How many of you guys intend to graduate and go to college?” Jimenez asks. “I better see hands.”
Most hands go up, but not all.
“More hands, more hands,” she urges.
Jimenez leads a sister chapter of the Hispanic Student Union at the local community college. She’s a few years older and wiser, and has some grim stats to share.
“The graduation rates in Nevada, I mean, we are at the bottom, guys, as a state,” Jimenez tells the room. “And the Latino, Hispanic community, the graduation rates for us, are even lower.”
She tells the students if they can make it to a local college, the Hispanic Student Union will be there to help.
“We've been through maybe what you guys are going through right now,” Jimenez said.
The Hispanic Student Union’s faculty adviser is Isaac Barron, and he is constantly bringing in young people like Jimenez to motivate his students.
“They need to see these positive role models,” Barron said.
The adviser has dark features, a black beard, and a faint mustache. He was raised in this neighborhood by Mexican immigrants and attended Rancho. Barron made it through high school and then college against the odds, as a teenage father. Which is why he takes his role very personally.
He remembers one day when he chewed out a student for ditching class.
“Then I did have this one student and she asked: ‘Well, Mr. Barron, why do you care what he does? That’s his time,’” Barron recounted during an interview in his portable classroom where he teaches social studies.
“And I care, I think, for this reason: Because whenever I see a young man or young woman walk off, right, I see myself in them,” the teacher said. “And to me, as Latino, I feel members of my community are closing off the future to themselves.”
So Barron is doing what he can to change things. To start, he’s turned the Hispanic Student Union into a quasi extended family.
“We’ll have the older students mentor younger students,” he said. “We have the alumni, they always come back, help out.”
And those extra adults in the students’ lives are important. Especially for kids whose parents have limited education and struggle with English. It seems to be working: Barron says students in the club graduate at much higher rates than the school's Latino students overall.
“With a Hispanic teacher helping you, I feel, it helps you want to do more,” said Edith Carillo, a senior in the club. “Cause that way, I don’t know, it’s like: ‘Oh, we could do it.’”
Carillo wasn’t always serious about school. Then she became active in the club, and Barron began nagging about college.
“Ever since you know, ‘Oh, mi hija’ -- cause that is what he calls us,” Carillo said mimicking Barron’s voice and using the Spanish word for daughter. “’Scholarships. Fill it out.’”
But many of Carillo’s peers never found that mentor or club to keep them on track. She has friends who got pregnant, or got a job and left school. Those are the stereotypes that students in the club feel they have to overcome.
“They underestimate us a lot, just for the reason we are Hispanics,” said Brenda Gomez, a basketball player who is also a senior in the club.
“We can do something,” Gomez said. “We can change this world.”
And they are changing things. The Rancho Hispanic Student Union has become a political force in the community. The club made national headlines in 2010 when Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who is part of the Tea Party, met with the students and made a series of widely publicized gaffes on Latino issues that hurt her campaign.
Plus, a long list of Hispanic Student Union alumni are now emerging as community leaders. One is 31-year old state senator Ruben Kihuen, who wants to be Nevada’s first Latino congressman.
Kihuen dropped by the Hispanic Student Union’s holiday party in December. “What’s going on Rancho!” he yelled to their cheers.
Student volunteers from the club are a core part of Kihuen's campaign. They are walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors for him. To fire them up, Kihuen shares his own story about how he went from their spot at Rancho to politics.
“And you know, a lot of people said you aren't going to win because you are too young, because you were raised in the hood, because you went to Rancho High School,” Kihuen said, noting that when he was a student, the rumor was that you needed a gun to survive at Rancho.
The aspiring congressman gave the students this advice: “You can do two things. You can let that stuff put you down, or you can use it to inspire you. “