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For Minorities, Road to Success Is Steep

March 26, 1992|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School

I talked recently with some of my black and Latino colleagues and students at Santa Monica High School about the special obstacles to academic success that they encounter. We also discussed some ways to overcome them.

Peer pressure affects students of all ethnic groups but it is especially acute for blacks and Latinos. Members of both groups can face strong pressure to join gangs, and they are sometimes scorned as "acting white" if they succeed in school.

"If you say, 'I want to be a doctor,' there's always someone out there to say, 'You're not going to be a doctor,' " said Omar Kelly, a black sophomore.

Black and Latino students also have to live down negative stereotypes that are held by some educators.

"When (blacks) walk in, they're automatically assumed to be in a gang, not to be intelligent, or not capable of handling a full workload," said Tendo Nagenda, 16.

Mona Ortiz, a 17-year-old Latina, agreed. "When people see me in class, they naturally think that I'm going to cheat, or they're scared that I'm going to get into a fight with other kids."

Sometimes the need to help out at home can get in the way of academic success.

"There's pressure to contribute (financially) to the home," said Rose Marie de la Pena, a teacher of English. "A lot of kids have to work, (so) they lose interest in school."

For some Latinos, lack of mastery of English is another huge hurdle, De la Pena said.

As a poor speaker of English "moves into the higher grades, he may get further behind, feel a total failure when he gets to high school, and then drop out," she said.

Even so, there are many blacks and Latinos who beat the odds and excel in school.

Although there's no single path to success among them, nearly everyone mentioned parental interest in their schoolwork as the main incentive.

"I have a mother at home to stress the importance of education," Kelly said. "I just thank her for getting her education and putting a little encouragement in me."

Playing sports motivates many students, minority and otherwise, to do well, because they must keep their grades up in order to participate.

If not for sports, said Irene Regalado, a Latina 11th-grader, she "would just not have tried as hard" in school. "I have to keep my grades up to play softball."

Students can also receive encouragement from such clubs as the Black Student Union and MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), which are common in area high schools.

Kelly, for example, has been inspired by some of his fellow Black Student Union members whom he views as role models.

"There are a few people there who I look up to and I say, 'Well, if they can do it, I can do it,' " he said.

Both clubs also provide guest speakers, ethnic celebrations, information about colleges and scholarships and workshops.

A fairly recent addition to our school's curriculum are courses in African-American and Latin American studies.

"Those classes give students greater self-esteem and a recognition that their culture is OK--they don't have to be ashamed of it," De la Pena said.

However, some changes are needed so that more black and Latino kids can succeed, according to Ada Sheppard, a black counselor.

"Teachers must have greater expectations for all their students," she said. "They have to expect that (blacks and Latinos) can perform, and then get in there and help them."

Reducing class size can also help. "That creates a pressure on the student to get involved . . . because he knows he is going to have to perform more often," Sheppard added.

She also suggested more tutoring and counseling services, as well as workshops on study skills and self-esteem.

In addition, several black and Latino students said they would like more teachers and staff from their respective ethnic groups.

Although campus organizations and student services can help motivate black and Latino students, academic success is ultimately up to the student.

"It really is the individual who (decides) whether or not he wants to be somebody," Kelly said. "I definitely want to be somebody."

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