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CALIFORNIA'S COLLEGE EXPERIENCE

A Mayor Can Teach ...

June 11, 2005

Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa has put education at the top of his agenda. Unlike in Chicago, New York and some other cities, L.A.'s mayor has no direct control over public schools. But a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California suggests that Villaraigosa can play a key role, aside from whether he decides to seek more formal authority, such as appointing school board members.

Looking to 2025, the nonpartisan think tank projects that the state's need for a well-educated workforce will outstrip its supply of college graduates. Baby boomers, among the best-educated generations in U.S. history, will be retiring in droves. Their place in the workforce increasingly will be taken by immigrants and the children of immigrants, primarily Mexican Americans, a group that up to now has been among the least likely to attend college or finish high school.

Meanwhile, the state will continue its shift from a manufacturing economy to one driven by service jobs. Low-skilled jobs such as flipping burgers don't pay middle-class wages. And well-paying service jobs in high technology, entertainment and healthcare will be out of reach to those without a good education. The companies that provide these jobs will leave the state unless California is able to import college graduates -- or grow its own.

Polls show that Latino parents are just as eager as any others to have their children graduate from high school and go to college. One way new immigrants fall short is in understanding just what it takes to get into college, from taking the right high school courses to filling out the right applications.

Latino students also have a very high dropout rate; a Harvard University study released in March showed that just 39% of Latinos and 47% of African American students in the Los Angeles Unified School District who should have graduated in 2002 did so.

Reversing this trend will take handpicked teaching and administrative staffs for the district's worst high and middle schools, more security, more counselors, smaller classes, teacher bonuses and academic intervention for struggling students. If the school board won't act, then Los Angeles needs a mayor who will. In the meantime, Villaraigosa's own compelling personal story is made for the bully pulpit.

The son of a Mexican immigrant, the mayor-elect was kicked out of one high school and dropped out of another. But with the help of a dedicated teacher, he returned to school and was able to graduate on time by attending night classes. He went on to East Los Angeles College and then UCLA.

If anyone can rally teachers, parents and students alike -- Latino and otherwise -- surely he can.

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