According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 20 percent of Latino males dropped out of high school in 2008, the highest among any demographic in the country. The long-term consequences of Latinos and ultimately men of color dropping out of school create what Dr. Luis Ponjuan calls a “silent crisis.”
An assistant professor of educational administration and policy at the University of Florida, Dr. Ponjuan recently spoke at the National Education Association and identified the major problems that plague Latino boys and how schools and communities can improve their educational opportunities. Ponjuan is one of many researchers and specialists hired by the NEA Priority Schools Campaign to address issues facing minority students, particularly boys of color.
The most pressing issue concerning Latino boys, Ponjuan explained, is the ongoing and declining trend in high school degree completion and consequently a lack of participation in post-secondary education all the way from the associate to doctoral levels.
The primary causes vary, but come from the lack of parental involvement and outreach, lack of professional skills among teachers to work with young boys of color, and the pressing challenges to adhere to high stakes testing.
“It is necessary to develop a policy that helps students achieve success in our educational system. It is better to educate our Latino students rather than to incarcerate them in our prisons,” he said.
Compared with Black males, the problems that Latino males face are unique in that they range from language proficiency, immigration and cultural differences where there is a greater pressure to contribute to the family financially and emotionally.
Ponjuan moved to the United States in 1970 from Cuba when he was three years old. He didn’t speak English until the first grade and grew up in rural Franklin, La., where his father worked in a sugarcane mill and his mother baked cakes. He later graduated from University of New Orleans, earned a Master’s at Florida State University and earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan.
“I really felt like it was important for me to explore, ‘Why did I make it?’” he said. “When I take a look at how many Ph. D graduates there are every year compared to men my age, 24 and older, I am .0001 with a Ph. D.”
“I came from another country, didn’t speak the language and I’m here, so what responsibility do I have having this stage and platform to not address this issue?”
“It would be very irresponsible of me to just point out the problem. There are a lot of people that problematize this issue, a lot of people who say ‘the sky is falling,’ and not give you a solution,” he said.
The primary solutions require communication across various stakeholders, collaboration across multiple organizations that cross boundaries between schools, communities, and government, and long-term commitment to help boys of color, especially, Hispanic boys, he said.
Ponjuan also emphasized that post-secondary education isn’t limited to only a four-year college degree as there are many associate credentials from culinary arts to technical trades that can allow Latinos to build a fruitful and prosperous life.
The long-term effects of having a large, undereducated population, Ponjuan warned, will affect everyone.
“The Latino agenda is the United States economic agenda,” he said. “For us to turn our backs to a group that will represent a large percent of our labor workforce, shame on us. Shame on us, if we think we’re going to be a successful country with the limited resources that we have by ignoring the largest-growing population.”
“The time is now. We need to help all our boys succeed in education, more critically, for the young men of color who are vanishing from our educational institutions and our communities.”