In August, President Barack Obama appointed Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, to the White House Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, a high-powered panel that will advise him on creating vital learning opportunities for the nation’s growing population of Hispanic students.
“I’m not really into titles, but this one, I want. This commission, I want. This work, I want to do because it’s work that matters,” said Eskelsen, a former Utah Teacher of the Year.
Meanwhile, the Pew Hispanic Center also revealed in August that enrollment by young Hispanics in colleges and universities has hit an all-time high. Driven by a single-year surge of 24 percent, Hispanics now constitute the largest minority group on those campuses, outnumbering black students, whose enrollment also has increased steadily. “This isn’t just about population growth. They are narrowing the gap,” said Richard Fry, the author of the Pew report, to The New York Times.
Great news—but Hispanic students still have a great deal of ground to cover to catch up with their peers. In 2009, nearly 18 percent of Hispanics dropped out of high school, compared to fewer than 10 percent of black students and 5 percent of whites. And, while college enrollment rates are hopeful, too few Hispanic students are actually earning degrees from those institutions.
“The state of education for our Latino students, whether they’re immigrants or American-born, is dire,” said Theresa Montaño, an associate professor of Chicano Studies and Education at California State University, Northridge. And too often, she said, policy-makers simply point the finger at teachers and faculty members.
That’s why Eskelsen’s appointment to that dais, so close to Obama’s ear, is so important, Montaño said. “Lily brings in the voices and experiences of practitioners, which have been too often missing from the discussion of what happens to Latino students, pre-k through college,” she said.
Through its work, the commission will provide advice to Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan about improving the academic achievements of Hispanic students.
Noting that, at 54 million strong, Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in this country, Obama has said that the country’s economic success depends on the success of their young people. “The single most important thing we can do,” Obama said earlier this year, “is to make sure we’ve got a world-class education for everybody. That is a prerequisite for prosperity.”
For her part, Eskelsen couldn’t agree more. In a recent post to her blog, Lily’s Blackboard, she wrote, “In a few short years, Latino children will make up 25% of our student population. Our country will not prosper if we waste the gifts of 25% of our future.”
The commission, which meets next in early October, also includes such individuals as Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of an article in last year’s NEA Almanac entitled, “High Stakes and Low Horizons: Changing the Odds for Latino Students.”