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Becoming more than a statistic

Jessie Gutierrez's most poignant memory from the first grade at Medford's Roosevelt Elementary School is his teacher putting him and another Hispanic child in the corner for speaking Spanish while the class laughed mockingly at them.

The experience soured Gutierrez's feelings about school, and by his freshman year at South Medford High School, he wanted to drop out as his two older brothers had done before him.

Gutierrez, now 21, was on track to become part of a national statistic that indicates about 25 percent of Hispanics ages 16 to 24 are dropouts.

Poverty, high mobility, language and cultural boundaries are just some of the challenges Hispanics face in obtaining an education, local educators say.

There are about 4,400 Hispanic students in Jackson County, according to Oregon Department of Education statistics. More than half of those are in English Language Learner programs. Seventy-seven percent of them come from low-income families, defined as $43,300 or less for a family of four.

In Oregon, the dropout rate among Hispanic students is twice as high as their white counterparts, according to the ODE: 7.6 percent among Hispanics and 3.5 percent among whites.

About 90 percent of those Hispanic students under age 18 are U.S. citizens, according to a recent report by the National Council of La Raza called "Missing Out: Latino Students in America's Schools."

Earlier this month, a coalition of about 100 educators, civic leaders and nonprofit groups met in the largest summit on improving Latino educational outcomes ever held in Southern Oregon, according to Ron D'Aloisio, coordinator of the Latino Partnership Project of the Oregon Community Foundation.

The coalition's goals are to improve Latino educational achievement by providing more bilingual employees, translators for parents and mentors and role models for students.

Such support services can make a big difference in students' lives, as they did for Gutierrez.

"What turned it around was Barbara McCormick, a counselor at South Medford High School," Gutierrez recalled. "I was in her office asking her to talk to the Job Council so I could drop out of school and get a job."

Though he was failing all his classes and was behind in credits, she believed in him, he said.

"She said it was impossible to make up the credits, but that I could do it," he said. "After two years of her bugging me about it, I realized this lady really cared."

Meanwhile, English as a Second Language success specialist Alejandra Ruiz discovered Gutierrez had been forging notes to try to excuse his absences, and she began calling his parents and letting them know in Spanish what he was up to.

Gutierrez made up credit through a work-for-credit program and was able to graduate on time. He went on to earn a contractor's license at Rogue Community College, has his own concrete contracting business, owns his own house and is getting married in July.

Perla Andrade, a 19-year-old RCC student who graduated from Eagle Point High School, moved to the United States from Mexico with her family when she was 14. Her father worked as a carpenter to support the family, and neither of her parents spoke fluent English.

While Eagle Point provided a translator or two at parent conferences, often there weren't enough to go around, she said.

"So sometimes the parents have to rely on their kid to translate," Andrade said. "The problem is what if the kid is not saying what the teacher is saying because he doesn't want his parents to know."

She said the language barrier created more challenges for her brother, who is five years younger, because he was in elementary school when the family moved to Southern Oregon.

"Usually the little ones need more help with homework," Andrade said. "My parents don't know the language, so they couldn't help, especially in reading, and they felt a little helpless."

Schools have been making efforts to meet Latino students' needs, but they just haven't kept up with the growth in the Hispanic population, D'Aloisio said.

The Hispanic population in Jackson County has doubled in the past 10 years to 16 percent and is expected to double again in the next 10 years.

In contrast to Gutierrez's days in the first grade, Medford schools now provide newsletters and other information in both English and Spanish at schools with large Latino populations. Eagle Point and Phoenix-Talent school districts do the same.

There are even English as a Second Language classes for parents in some school districts such as Phoenix-Talent, Medford and soon in Eagle Point. Kids Unlimited, an after-school program in Medford, announced Friday it will offer English classes to parents beginning Nov. 3.

Despite such efforts, Hispanics students, most of whom either don't speak English or their parents don't, continue to lag far behind their white counterparts in educational achievement.

By the 10th grade, only about 34 percent of Oregon Hispanic students meet benchmarks in reading, compared to 53 percent of white students. In math, about 26 percent of Hispanic 10th-graders meet benchmarks compared to 40 percent of whites, according to 2007-08 figures by the ODE.

The summit coalition wants to find more ways to involve Latino parents in their children's education through more parent orientations in Spanish and translators in schools. It also wants to connect Latino students with mentors and role models.

Gutierrez said he knows from experience that mentors and role models can be effective in inspiring students to stay in school.

Phil Ortega, South Medford's bilingual dean of students at the time and now a truancy officer in the Eagle Point district, provided Gutierrez with a Hispanic role model, he said.

"He took me away from bad influences," Gutierrez said. "He took me out to eat, and what made it cool was he was Hispanic, too."

Local leaders also recommend finding ways to better prepare students for postsecondary education and making schools more culturally inclusive and free of racial or cultural discrimination.

Meeting those goals could involve enlisting volunteer mentors for students, hiring more bilingual teachers, recruiting teachers from Spanish-speaking countries, creating panels of Latino students to share experiences and give feedback on what works and what doesn't, and providing more parent education in English and on how the U.S. school system works.

Coalition organizers hope the initial recommendations from the summit will form the foundation of a regional Latino Education Action Plan, said D'Aloisio.

The group meets again to begin refining an action plan at noon Nov. 6 at the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center, 101 S. Bartlett St., Medford.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

Rogue Community College science student Perla Andrade, 19, said she found good support services at Eagle Point High School when she came to the U.S. at age 14. Local educators and others say providing mentors and role models for students and translators for parents can help bring down the national dropout rate among Hispanics of 25 percent. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell