Limiting the dreams of Latino students hurts them and Georgia

Credit: Ralph Barrera

Credit: Ralph Barrera

Aixa M. Pascual is advocacy, public affairs and cultural engagement senior lead at the Latin American Association, the largest nonprofit serving Georgia's Latino population. A graduate of Princeton and Columbia, Pascual is from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

In this guest column, Pascual urges the state to recognize the importance of Latino youth to Georgia. Her point: Today, 16 percent of the students enrolled in Georgia public schools are Latino. Blocking their access to college limits their future and the future of the state as well.

By Aixa M. Pascual

In classrooms all over metro Atlanta and in areas far away, the growth in Latino population is fueling a seismic demographic shift across the state. Since 2000, Hispanic enrollment at Georgia public schools has more than quadrupled to 277,000, growing at a faster rate than for any other group in the state, according to the most recent data from the Georgia Department of Education. These data also reveal that an astonishing 16 percent of the 1.8 million students now enrolled in Georgia public schools are Latino.

At Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, Latinos make up 67 percent of the student body. In Marietta City Schools, 37 percent of students identify as Hispanic. Just off Buford Highway in Brookhaven, Cross Keys High School is 90 percent Latino. Further up north in Dalton, almost touching the Tennessee border, Dalton High School is 68 percent Latino. Deep south on the Florida line, in a sparsely populated area, the student body at Echols County Schools is 48 percent Hispanic.

The largest school districts in the state, once predominantly black and white, are becoming increasingly polychromous as U.S. births drive Latino growth. In 2017, 65 school systems in Georgia had at least 10 percent of their student body identifying as Hispanic, up from only 12 systems in 2000, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

This massive demographic change has important implications for Georgia’s future and fortunes. With a median age that is much lower than that of the general population and with higher fertility rates, Latinos will no doubt continue to fuel our growth statewide going forward. By 2040, Latinos will make up 14 percent of the state’s population, up from 10 percent in 2020. By 2035, Gwinnett, the state’s second most populous county, is expected to be 29 percent Latino, up from 22 percebt in 2015.

Young Latinos are a key part of Georgia’s population growth and continued economic prosperity. It becomes almost axiomatic then that for Georgia to do well, Latino youth must do well.

Georgia prides itself in being consistently ranked the No. 1 state for business. Business-friendly policies, economic development efforts, an educated workforce and the presence of Fortune 500 companies that call Atlanta home are a magnet for new and expanding enterprises. But for Georgia to stay at the top of its game in the face of inevitable demographic changes, Latinos, particularly Latino youth, must fare much better. How we as a state educate Hispanics and ensure their academic success starting at an early age will shape our economic destiny in the years and decades to come.

Georgia’s Latino population – now 1 million strong – is the backbone of our “essential economy,” a cluster of low-wage occupations that are absolutely essential to maintaining our economic competitiveness. But in the face of a huge wave of young Latinos, this population will be an increasing part of the workforce, and, if Georgia is to continue thriving, young Latinos must be educated and prepared for highly skilled jobs. Whether Latinos are reading at third-grade level by the third grade, graduating from high school or receiving financial aid for college are issues that affect us all, not just the Latino residents in our state.

One of the most urgent questions our state’s policymakers must answer is: What is Georgia doing to meet the needs of Latinos and other youth of color? Our collective well-being and prosperity hinge on what we do to safeguard the success of Latinos and all children, and whether we intervene at appropriate times and in appropriate ways that will help them build a solid future.

In fact, the timing of the interventions may be everything. The academic achievement gap between Latino students and other groups starts early on and keeps widening as they go into high school and beyond. Latinos lag their peers in third-grade reading proficiency, a key indicator of future academic success. Only 26 percent of Hispanic students in Georgia are reading proficiently and above grade level by the third grade, compared to 39 percent for all students, according to a 2018 report by Learn4Life, a metro Atlanta educational partnership that aims to improve student achievement and workforce readiness.

All too often, how students begin their education journey dictates their final destination. The early achievement gap’s lasting effects illustrate this: Too few Latinos are graduating from high school and going to college or technical school. Latino students not only graduate from high school at much lower rates (74%) than their black (78%) or white (84%) peers, but are also less likely to graduate than economically disadvantaged children (76%), according to figures from the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. Latinos are also less likely to pursue higher education and, if they do, they are less likely to continue on to their sophomore year, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Though the Latino dropout rate has declined dramatically, and college enrollment has increased over the past decade, Latinos still lag other groups in earning a bachelor's degree, according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly half of Latinos who go to college attend a public two-year school, or community college, the highest share of any race or ethnicity, Pew data reveal.

And, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Excelencia in Education, which promotes Latino student achievement in higher education, Hispanic students are more likely than their peers to attend college with a mix of partial and full-time enrollment and to be enrolled in college after six years.

State policies are in part to blame for the educational chasm between Latinos and other groups. For instance, about 21,000 young Georgians (about 78 percent are Latino) who benefit from a deportation deferral and work permit program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are unable to attend college in the state because Board of Regents policy mandates that they pay out-of-state tuition. Though many wish to pursue higher education, these students, who must already comply with strict educational requirements to qualify for DACA, cannot afford to pay the higher tuition fees. Georgia DACA recipients are also ineligible for the HOPE Scholarship and other state grants and are legally barred from attending some of Georgia’s top public universities such as Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.

The education gap is further compounded by other socio-economic indicators where Latinos lag. According to data made available by Invest Atlanta, Latinos in the metro area are less likely to be homeowners than other racial or ethnic groups; they are more likely than other groups to spend a higher percentage of their incomes in housing; and they tend to earn lower wages per hour than any other group. Latinos are also much more likely than any other group to be “working poor,” and almost half of Latino students attend schools with high poverty levels.

As Latinos in Georgia evolve into a critical mass, it is not in our best interest to perpetuate our current reality. For the sake of Latino youth and all of us, we must change course. We must ensure that Latinos graduate from high school prepared to go to technical school or college and pursue professional jobs in high-growth fields such as information technology, financial services and health care. If demographics is destiny, it is imperative that we are intentional and strategic about producing better educational outcomes in schools across the state.

To do otherwise will mean compromising the future of thousands of Latino youth, young people who are vital to the state’s future economic prosperity.