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Trying to bridge the grade divide

COLUMN ONE

Why do Asians generally get higher marks than Latinos? Lincoln High students have candid ideas.

July 16, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

The eight students walked into a room at Lincoln High School prepared to discuss an issue many people, including some of their teachers, considered taboo.

They were blunt. Carlos Garcia, 17, an A student with a knack for math, said, "My friends, most of them say, 'You're more Asian than Hispanic.' "

"I think Carlos is Asian at heart," said Julie Loc, 17, causing Carlos to laugh good-naturedly. Asian students who get middling grades often get another response, she said.

"They say, 'Are you really Asian?' " Julie said.

"It's sad but true," said Eliseo Garcia, a 17-year-old with long rocker hair, an easy manner and good grades. "I had an Asian friend, but he didn't necessarily get that great a grades. We used to say, 'He's Mexican at heart.' "

What accounts for such self-deprecating humor? Or the uneven academic performance that prompts it?

The state's top education official, Supt. Jack O'Connell, called for that kind of discussion last fall when he decried the "racial achievement gap" separating Asian and non-Latino white students from Latinos and blacks.

At The Times' request, the Eastside students gathered to talk about this touchy subject.

Lincoln Heights is mostly a working-class Mexican American area, but it's also a first stop for Asian immigrants, many of them ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam.

With about 2,500 students, Lincoln High draws from parts of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Chinatown.

Both the neighborhood and student body are about 15% Asian. And yet Asians make up 50% of students taking Advanced Placement classes. Staffers can't remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian.

"A lot of my friends say the achievement gap is directly attributable to the socioeconomic status of students, and that is not completely accurate," O'Connell said. "It is more than that."

But what is it? O'Connell called a summit in Sacramento that drew 4,000 educators, policymakers and experts to tackle the issue. Some teachers stomped out in frustration and anger.

No Lincoln students stomped out of their discussion. Neither did any teachers in a similar Lincoln meeting. But the observations were frank, and they clearly made some uncomfortable.

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To begin with, the eight students agreed on a few generalities: Latino and Asian students came mostly from poor and working-class families.

According to a study of census data, 84% of the Asian and Latino families in the neighborhoods around Lincoln High have median annual household incomes below $50,000. And yet the Science Bowl team is 90% Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team.

"Look at the statistics. It's true," said George De La Paz, 17, whose single mother works as a house cleaner.

Asian parents are more likely to pressure their children to excel academically, the students agreed.

"They only start paying attention if I don't do well," said Karen Chu, 15, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam. "They don't reward me for getting straight A's. I don't get anything for that. But if I get a B, they're like, 'What's this?' "

If her grades slipped, she said, her parents laid on the guilt extra thick. "My parents are always like, 'If you don't do well in school, then it's all going to be worth nothing,' " Karen said, laughing nervously.

Julie Loc, the daughter of a seamstress and a produce-truck driver, said that if she gets a B, her parents ask whether she needs tutoring. She said her father used to compare her to other people's children, noting their hard course loads or saying, "They have a 4.3 [grade-point average]. Why do you only have a 4.0?' "

Julie said her mother, Kin Ho, finally told her father to stop making comparisons. Ho, in an interview, said with a slightly embarrassed smile, "My daughter has embraced American culture, where she expects my reassurance and approval. Our children, if they did something well, they would ask us if we were proud of them, if they did good. They ask if we love them."

George said his mother, a Mexican immigrant, has high expectations for him too, but she is not so white-knuckled when it comes to school. She wants him to do well -- he's now thinking of college -- but the field of endeavor is up to him.

"She said, 'I came here to do better for you,' " he said. "But that's about it. Being happy and getting by, that's what she wants."

For Carlos Garcia, the one with the knack for math, the message from his parents was to focus on school. Neither got to finish grade school in their native countries.

His mother, Maribel, from El Salvador, is a homemaker; his father, Santos, a Mexican immigrant, is a drywall finisher who once took Carlos and his older brother to work with him -- to scare them away from manual labor. Two of their children have college degrees, one is still in college and Carlos, the only Latino on Lincoln's Academic Decathlon team, wants to attend Caltech.

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