DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)–It’s hard for 17-year-old Gretchen Cervantes to remember what life was like before 1998–before her life revolved around babies crying to be fed, disposable diapers needing to be changed, cartoon reruns demanding to be watched and scattered toys requiring to be put away.

“I dropped out of school when I was 15,” the Dallas teen admits, almost embarrassed. “I got pregnant and I was having pains and I had to go to the hospital during final exams. I didn’t get the chance to take the exams, so I failed.”

When pressed as to why she didn’t return to school after the baby was born, Gretchen admitted in an interview that she wanted to drop out to stay home to take care of the baby; her second child was born the following year.

Gretchen’s story is not unique.

A recent report by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, “Si Se Puede! Yes, We Can: Latinas in School,” indicates that Latinas hold the unenviable distinction of having the highest dropout rate of any other racial or ethnic group.

The organization’s study is based on a review of available research and a synthesis of published data.

Educators are frustrated by this situation, especially in light of the latest U.S. Census figures that show the Latino population is now the nation’s largest minority group. Additionally, Latinos comprise the student majority in 10 of the nation’s largest school districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Educator Says Schools Failing Latinas

This growing population means that more and more education administrators will come cara-a-cara (face-to-face) with this problem. And, like most problems with adolescents, the family, community and school system each play a role in positive and negative outcomes.

“I think the current educational system is failing a lot of students, not just Latinas,” says Dr. Yolanda Cruz, superintendent of Dallas Can Academy, a Texas charter school system catering to dropout students who return to school. She adds, however, that educators have a tendency not to challenge those failures when it involves Latinas. “There are lower expectations of them.”

Sometimes those expectations also are imposed by families and friends. In the American Association of University Women report, young Latinas were found to be very susceptible to the wishes of peers and family. The report’s researchers wrote that young Latinas were afraid of being considered “too educated” or being perceived as “acting white.”

Too often, they opted, instead, to give in to the demands of their friends to skip school and to their companions’ urgings to have sexual intercourse.

“I had a boyfriend that always wanted me to skip school,” confessed 19-year-old Dorothy Guerra, the mother of a toddler. “So, I skipped and I wasn’t making no good grades, and I dropped out. I did nothing, just stayed at home. It was just a waste of life,” she said in an interview. Since then, she has returned to school.

Family May Need Teens to Earn Cash, Not Degree

For some Latinas, family demands make going to school difficult. With many Latino families living at or below the poverty level, every dollar is needed to survive. For that reason, some teen Latinas see more of a value in working than going to school.

“For many Latinas, dropping out of school is not a frivolous matter,” says Anne Lockwood, honorary fellow with the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research. “They feel pressed to contribute to the family.”

Most experts attribute that strong sense of familial duty to the deep family-oriented Hispanic culture. However, experts point out that it is far from the intent of Hispanic families to have their children fail in school. They say the majority of families want their children to excel. It is the economic and social positions of the family that cause some Latinas to weigh the value of a distant degree against the immediate need of making money to help buy food and pay bills.

And then there is the other home battle that young Latinas must contend with: the traditional mindset.

“The Hispanic female is seen as the one who is going to raise the children and be the housewife,” says Superintendent Cruz. “I see a lot of abuse, physical and emotional, of our females by their families.”

Latinas who are lucky enough to maneuver their way around the usual home and community pitfalls that tempt them from graduating from high school must overcome one more obstacle before graduation is a reality.

The school atmosphere. Schools have proven to be the breeding grounds for some of the most damaging situations Latina girls experience when it comes to affecting and developing their self-esteem and self-confidence, the university women’s study found.

The study’s authors wrote that while in school Latinas faced routine racial stereotyping, low expectations and threats to their personal safety. The Latina teens reported that they continually had to counter teachers’ and counselors’ assumptions that they were gang members simply because they spoke Spanish.

Dr. Angela Ginorio, co-author of the Si Puede report, argues that schools must work with the families and communities of the Latina population to build upon the natural strengths the girls take to the classroom.

“We need to recognize cultural values,” says Dr. Ginorio. “And help Latinas harmonize these values with girls’ aspirations to education and learning.”

To achieve this balance, the study proposes that educators should:

  • Promote careers that are not racial or gender stereotypes
  • Recruit more teachers from the Hispanic community
  • Educate families about the long-term value of a college education
  • Demonstrate that the worlds of young motherhood and schooling can go hand-in-hand

“Latina students are very powerful,” says Superintendent Cruz. “They just don’t know it.”

Author’s Note: Both girls interviewed for this story have returned to school.

Marisa Treviño is a Dallas-based free-lance writer who regularly writes on Latina issues and contributes to local public radio.

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WEnews Brief

Supreme Court Rejects State’s Drug Testing of Pregnant Women

(WOMENSENEWS)–The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that hospitals cannot test pregnant women for drugs without their permission and then give the results to the police. Testing requires a search warrant or consent, justices said in their 6-3 decision.

The high court ruled in the case of Crystal Ferguson, a former crack cocaine user whose urine was tested by a South Carolina public hospital. The hospital argued that it was trying to prevent women from harming their fetuses through their drug use.

The decision said such searches violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

Dissenting from the majority were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. They said doctors are supposed to have the mother’s and the child’s welfare in mind and “that they have in mind in addition the provision of evidence to the police should make no difference.”

The high court has ruled that drug testing is permissible without a warrant and without reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed only if the government can demonstrate a “special need,” as in the case of railroad workers involved in accidents. The ruling means that drug testing of pregnant women in order to protect their fetuses cannot be considered a special need.

Our Story

This is a special, daily feature of Women’s Enews during Women’s History Month

(WOMENSENEWS)–1981: Judge Sandra Day O’Connor of the Arizona Court of Appeals is nominated as the first woman justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. O’Connor had a long career of public service, beginning as an assistant attorney general in Arizona, then a state senator and a trial court judge there before President Reagan nominated her to the highest court.

O’Connor, with a law degree from Stanford University, began her law career by starting her own practice because established firms would not hire a woman.

Initially a solid conservative vote, O’Connor later developed into a jurist who seeks a centrist position on the divided Rehnquist court. She has been the key justice in retaining abortion rights, however, she was the fifth vote in three recent anti-civil rights decisions.

O’Connor, a breast cancer survivor, will have been on the Supreme Court for 20 years in September. She is widely believed to be considering retirement.–By Glenda Crank Holste.