When Lidia Lopez was eleven, her family moved to Portland from Mexico full of hope for the future. But for Lidia, disillusion had set in by tenth grade. Despite six years in Portland Public Schools' English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, she still couldn't understand what her teachers were saying.
"The teachers spoke really fast," she says. "It was very frustrating." Lopez dropped out of high school and got pregnant. Soon, she was a single parent on the fast track to a lifetime of low-wage jobs.
Her experience is not unusual. Across Multnomah County more than thirty percent of Latino high school students drop out annually--double the state's dropout rate. Ultimately, only one in four Latino students graduates.
According to a recent report by the Latino Network for Multnomah County Commissioners, agencies lack the language, cultural knowledge, and sometimes even the will to work with Latino families. Most pointedly, despite years of warning signs and pleas from Latino community leaders, school administrators have dragged their feet on hiring bilingual teachers. Even in nearby Woodburn, where the schools are seventy percent Latino, only one student in every hundred is taught by a Latino teacher.
Some charge that schools are misusing federal funds intended to benefit ESL students. Schools receive extra money for poor students and ESL students; but according to the recent report, that funding doesn't translate into a fair share of resources for those children.
School administrators insist that the money is spent on ESL programs, but advocates argue that much of the funding intended for poor, non-English speaking students is siphoned off and used elsewhere.
"They say we could use a fine arts teacher over here, or a music teacher," says Miguel Salinas, a former school principal, and a lobbyist for the nonprofit Hispanic Education Advocacy Resource Team. "What they are not doing is looking at the needs of those children and saying 'How can we spend this so it can help these families?' "
In Portland, schools are unlikely to be spending more money on Latino kids this year. With a budget cut of $20 million to absorb, schools all over the city are cutting staff and programs.