Commentary

Saunders: Celebrating 15 years of helping Hispanic children get an education

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMarch 24, 2014 

When Marco Zarate arrived in North Carolina 23 years ago, he already had a high school diploma and a college degree.

“I came here to get my master’s degree,” Zarate told me Monday. “Back then, you hardly saw any Hispanics in North Carolina. Then the influx started picking up about 20 years ago.”

Most of those in that influx hadn’t been to college and were coming to seek jobs, not an education, he said. For those who did seek an education, “our school system was not really prepared. Watching that and the high dropout rate among Latino students, the thought at that time was, ‘We need to have a group of people help these students,’ ” Zarate said.

So, six people – three married couples – came together. There was a businessman, a scientist, an engineer and their wives, all of whom were teachers. They founded the N.C. Society of Hispanic Professionals, which is celebrating its 15th year this year.

Giving dollars and time

Zarate said the group has more than 650 members now and 1,000 “friends” statewide who’ve volunteered more than 25,000 hours and donated thousands of dollars. Many of those friends are expected at the McKimmon Center at N.C. State University for the group’s annual summit from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday.

“Even though we are a professional organization,” Zarate said, “the only mission is to promote education among Hispanic youth. The thought was, 20 years ago, that if we don’t focus on the kids, we’re not going to have the professionals that we want for our state.

“When we started,” he said, “five Hispanic students were graduating from high school and five were dropping out. We’re still losing students, but we’re not losing half of them.”

In addition to dropout prevention, the society provides tutors and helps raise students’ self-esteem, something Zarate calls a key factor in keeping them in school.

A Wake County schools spokeswoman sent me figures showing that for Hispanic students who entered high school in 2009-2010, the percentage who were graduated in 2012-2013 was 66 percent.

In Durham County, the figure was 67 percent. By comparison, the percentage of black students who were graduated in Durham was 78 percent, while for white students it was 90 percent.

Depending on education

The better news, Zarate said, is that Hispanic students as a group had the highest increase in their graduation rate.

“We have seen that every year, more Latino students have graduated from high school,” he said. “The future of Hispanics here in North Carolina depends upon the education our kids get and how long they stay in school.”

The naked numbers don’t tell the whole story, Zarate said.

Part of the society’s challenge, he said, is convincing children and their families of education’s importance.

“There is the language barrier, and sometimes they feel isolated within the school. They don’t feel embraced,” he said. “Then, there is the pressure to go to work. If things are not going well in school, they feel, ‘What am I doing here? I should get a job.’ 

Even if they excel and complete high school, Zarate said, Hispanic students can face obstacles to higher education. “We have some students who applied for our scholarship with a GPA of more than 4.0, but if they are undocumented, they have to pay out-of-state tuition,” which is higher.

The society’s membership comprises Hispanics and non-Hispanics, professionals and non. If you want to help Zarate’s organization – and the state – contact the society at 919-467-8424 or at www.thencshp.org.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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