Saturday, May 5, 2012 | 2 a.m.
This much we know: Latinos are quickly becoming the majority in Nevada’s public schools, and already are in Clark County elementary schools, but they also do not graduate from high school or obtain advanced degrees at the same rate as other ethnicities.
In the coming years, Latinos will continue to make up a large portion of the state’s workforce.
So a growing question before Nevada’s educators, from kindergarten to graduate school, is: How do they prepare for and improve the outcomes of the growing population of Latino students?
At a forum on improving Latino student success Friday, legislators, teachers and administrators from all levels of Nevada’s education system came together at the College of Southern Nevada’s Charleston Campus to both discuss the situation and explore ideas for improvement.
“The tidal wave is here,” forum attendee Jose Melendrez, assistant vice president of UNLV’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, said of the influx of Latino students. “More and more jobs require a college degree. When you think about jobs Nevada has talked about attracting, green jobs, solar energy, things like that, you need an educated workforce for that. Companies want an educated workforce. ... The economy will suffer if we don’t do a better job of educating students.”
The first presentation was from Rice University professor Michael Cline, who laid out the demographic data.
From 2000 to 2010, Nevada saw the fastest percentage growth among all 50 states in Hispanic population, rising from 19 percent to 27 percent of the total populace. Nevada’s under-18 population is 39 percent Hispanic. By 2030, projections indicate Hispanics will make up 33 percent of Nevada’s population, Cline said.
“Hispanics are more likely to be unemployed and to be in poverty than non-Hispanic whites,” Cline said, adding that 91 percent of non-Hispanic whites in Nevada have the equivalent of a high school diploma or higher while 59 percent of Hispanics have met that level of education.
“I like to say the Texas of today is the U.S. of the future. There will be no ethnic majority,” Cline said, referring to his home state, where 2010 Census data show no ethnicity comprising more than 50 percent of the population.
Next, Deborah Santiago, of Excelencia in Education, an organization that promotes college for Latinos and conducts research on the higher education system, discussed the ramifications of becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution, a federal designation based mostly on Hispanic student enrollment that opens up avenues for funding. The federal government recognizes just over 300 Hispanic Serving Institutions, which are defined as degree-granting, not-for-profit, community colleges and undergraduate schools with a full-time student population that is at least 25 percent Hispanic. There are no Hispanic Serving Institutions in Nevada, but five — College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College, Truckee Meadows Community College, UNLV and Western Nevada College — are closing in on the enrollment requirement.
College of Southern Nevada is on the cusp, with 24 percent of its students identifying as Hispanic, and the college’s president, Michael Richards, said the school probably would have met the criteria by now if not for budget cuts during the recession.
Santiago said some schools shied away from publicizing the quest for the designation because they did not want to be seen as not serving other populations. They would seek the status to receive greater funding but otherwise not discuss the issue.
“A lot of the programs developed to help Hispanic students help all students,” Santiago said, noting that 40 percent of current Hispanic college students are the first in their families to seek an advanced degree. “Creating learning communities to help first-year students can help. ... With declines in the economy, retention has become more difficult, and retention councils can help all students stay in school. For first-generation college attendees, it’s not enough to say we built it and they will come.”
Santiago emphasized that colleges cannot simply enroll Hispanic students; they must “serve” them.
She said many college administrators she talked to knew the percentage of Hispanics enrolled but not the percentage that graduate.
“She was right about that. I don’t know the number for UNLV,” Melendrez said. “We are currently working on getting better data on how all ethnicities at UNLV are performing, though.”
Santiago also pointed out that becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution makes federal grants available and puts schools on the radar of private foundations that target minority-serving institutions for donations. She cited the Walmart Foundation, Lumina Foundation and Kresge Foundation as examples.
“Becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution opens the door to millions of dollars for Nevada, a flood of money,” Melendrez said. “That funding could help schools in a number of ways and would aid all students. I’d say in the next five to eight years, Nevada will definitely have one.”
The forum wrapped with a discussion about the next steps for Nevada. Assemblywomen Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, and Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, who both helped organize the event, joined a panel with Santos Martinez, College of Southern Nevada’s newly named president of student affairs, and Magdalena Martinez, assistant vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the Nevada System of Higher Education.
There appeared to be a consensus that more work should be done to get each level of the education system out of its “silos” and encourage collaborative programs that address education from kindergarten to graduate school. Polls show Hispanics place a high importance on education, but most in attendance agreed more outreach needed to be done so families that have never navigated the U.S. education system before are made more aware of financial aid opportunities and resources for students.
“Demography is not destiny,” Flores said. “There needs to be a concerted effort and energy behind the thought process. This won’t happen naturally, but maybe we were expecting it to happen naturally. I feel hopeful, and I’m excited that this is something we are finally putting effort behind.”