Thousands of East Valley teenagers will celebrate their high school graduation this month. But if you are Hispanic or American Indian, chances are greater you will not be celebrating.
Instead, you are more likely than your classmates to become part of a disturbing statistic.
Arizona Department of Education records for the class of 2001, the latest year for which statistics are available, show graduation rates for white students in Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe range from 85 percent to 95 percent.
But in the East Valley communities with the most minority students — Chandler, Tempe and Mesa — graduation rates are much lower for minorities, especially Hispanic and Indian students:
-- In the Chandler Unified School District, 69 percent of Hispanic students and 77 percent of Indian students graduated.
-- In the Tempe Union High School District, 69 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of Indians graduated.
-- In the Mesa Unified School District, 64 percent of Hispanics and 55 percent of Indians graduated. The rate for black students — 73 percent — is higher, but remains lower than the white graduation rate of 85 percent.
Even Mesa's graduation rate for white students — based on students who should have graduated in 2001 — is the lowest among white students in the East Valley's five largest school districts.
In contrast, Gilbert and Scottsdale districts have the highest overall graduation rates among the five districts — 95 percent and 92 percent, respectively.
In Chandler and Tempe, the rates have improved or stayed about the same in nearly every ethnic category compared with graduation rates from 1993. But in Mesa, comparisons between 1993 and 2001 show a sharp drop in the Hispanic rate — from 75 percent in 1993 to 64 percent in 2001 — while the Indian rate has dropped from 57 percent in 1993 to 55 percent in 2001.
Mesa officials say their graduation rates have fluctuated since 1993, but they also acknowledge current rates are unacceptable.
“We have room to improve,” said Mike Cowan, Mesa's curriculum superintendent. “Why is there a difference (in graduation rates among ethnicities)? That's a good question, and we struggle with that in public education.”
The problem is not unique to Mesa and other East Valley communities. Numerous national studies, including one released May 14 by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, have found that minority students are more likely than white students to drop out of American schools.
But with Arizona having a rapidly growing Hispanic population and a statewide dropout rate of about 10 percent — referred to as the worst in the nation by several reports — the issue is especially critical here.
If trends continue, Hispanic children will be the majority in Mesa's elementary schools in just a few years.
Mesa mother Carmen Guerrero, who has one child at Emerson Elementary School and another at Carson Junior High School, worries about what the future holds for her children and other Hispanic children in Mesa and Arizona.
“It's very hard for Hispanic youth to feel welcome in schools where administrators and teachers don't seem to reflect any understanding of their culture,” Guerrero said. “If you're not white, there's no room for you to be yourself. You either assimilate or you die.”
Guerrero said she would like to see Mesa employing more Hispanic teachers and principals.
“Kids get written off just because the teacher can't pronounce their name or understand their culture,” Guerrero said.
Janice Ramirez, the district's personnel superintendent, said Mesa has made it a priority in the past five years to recruit minorities and teachers who can teach English to students who do not speak the language. Statistics were not available Friday on the percentage of minority teachers and principals in the district.
This month, Mesa hired two Hispanic assistant principals for Carson and Fremont junior high schools. But two new hires in a 70,000-student, 88-school district seem small to Guerrero and other parents in Mesa's fast-growing Hispanic community.
“I think (Superintendent) Debra Duvall is trying,” Guerrero said. “But it's hard for her to turn the ship around. It's a big ship.”
Ramirez said that while there is value in having more minority teachers and principals in schools with larger minority populations, it's just as important to have employees of any ethnicity who are good at what they do and take extra time to motivate and mentor students.
“You don't have to be Hispanic to take a special interest and encourage a child,” she said.
Ramirez added that the support a child gets at home and in his community also is vital to his success in school.
For 17-year-old Marissa Brown, a senior who will graduate in June from Sun Valley High School, a Mesa charter school, that kind of support has been fleeting. Growing up on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation east of Globe, Brown skipped classes at the reservation's school so often, the court system placed her in a group home in Glendale when she was 15. She enrolled at the public Barry Goldwater High School.
Not long after that, she dropped out.
Brown describes life on the reservation for most Indians as one without structure and rules, a life where parenting is inconsistent and alcoholism is rampant.
“Children make their own decisions,” she said.
So public high school, with its schedules and rules, was a jolt. So were the cliques that form among teenagers in that setting.
A difficult adjustment to school, coupled with financial problems at the group home, resulted in Brown returning to the reservation for a while before being placed in another group home, this time, in Mesa. The group home director suggested Brown try Sun Valley instead of a another traditional district high school.
The move paid off. Brown flourished at the charter school, where hours are flexible, instruction is more one-to-one, and cliques are less common.
“They treat you like family here,” Brown said. “Native Americans don't hang together as one here. We're all mixed together.”
In June, Brown will be the first child in her family to graduate from high school. Instead of a cap and gown, she plans to wear traditional Apache attire to commencement.
From there, it's on to Mesa Community College and the University of Arizona to study science in criminal justice. Brown's goal: To become a juvenile judge on the reservation.
“I think they need someone who is going to enforce the rules and give steps for children to follow,” she said. “They need someone to motivate children and encourage them to stay in school.”
There are as many suggestions to solving Arizona's dropout problem as there are to explaining how it came to be.
This school year, the Mesa district is spending $1.3 million on dropout prevention for a range of programs that include mentoring, tutoring and other assistance.
The Chandler district offers similar programs, especially paying attention to the transition from eighth to ninth grade.
“It's that year of transition when you lose some kids,” said Mike Desper, director of secondary education. “We target groups of kids. We try to make sure they're with the right teachers.”
Chandler's graduation rates have increased significantly in all ethnic categories in the past decade. The rate for Hispanics rose from 54 percent in 1993 to 69 percent in 2001, the Indian rate rose from 44 percent in 1993 to 77 percent in 2001 and the black rate rose from 83 percent in 1993 to 90 percent in 2001.
“It's been a focus for us,” Desper said, adding that the district offers students who fall behind the opportunity to take classes on Saturdays or in the evenings so they can graduate on time. “We try to be flexible. That's really the key.”
Other educators, such as former legislator Jay Blanchard, a professor at Arizona State University's College of Education, point to the need for more early childhood programs that get children on the path to success from their first day of school.
“We need to reach out to parents in the young years,” Blanchard said. “By the time they're in junior high or high school, we've won or lost the battle.”
Tom Horne, the state's superintendent of public instruction, says the focus should be on making sure students are learning English as quickly as possible — through English immersion. He also has established an advisory group to seek ways to lower the Indian dropout rate.
Horne said four things have been shown to help reduce dropouts: Peer counseling, mentoring, flexible hours, and career and vocational education.
Gene Garcia, dean of ASU's College of Education, said there are many efforts under way at the university and in the community to address academic achievement for minorities and poor students, including a school completion task force at ASU.
Others, such as President Bush and proponents of the new federal No Child Left Behind law, say the solution is more basic: Higher expectations for all students regardless of ethnicity or background.
Cowan said educators in the Mesa district do have high expectations for all students, but different students require different teaching. And no East Valley district is changing as rapidly as the mostly white, middle-class Mesa district.
In 1990, 95 percent of the families in the district's elementary schools spoke English as their primary language; today, that figure is 78.6 percent. In 1990, 30 percent of elementary families had incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; today that figure is 46.9 percent. Individual schools have seen more dramatic change.
“Some teachers in our system have struggled with the fact that our population is changing. With that comes different teaching strategies, different levels of parental support,” Cowan said. “We're addressing it. But it's an uphill climb.”