Agency of the Month Education Department: Hispanic community celebrates 25 years of progress through White House Initiative

The main goal of the initiative is simple - to make sure Hispanic students not only enter but complete college. To achieve that goal takes a “cradle-to-career agenda,” Director Alejandra Ceja told Federal News Radio’s Agency of the Month program.


By Lauren Larson
Federal News Radio

Alejandra_CejaCreated in 1990 under the Bush administration at the urging of civil rights organizations, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics was born to call attention to an alarming dropout rate in the Hispanic community.

“It came at a time when the narrative on the state of education for Hispanic students was deficit-based,” the initiative’s director Alejandra Ceja told Federal News Radio. “We were in crisis. We had the highest dropout rate. The statistics were alarming.”

Today, one in four students in public schools is Hispanic, according to Ceja. The initiative has seen steady progress thanks to bipartisan support from every administration in the last 25 years.

“Currently we have a 15 percent college completion rate for bachelors or higher,” said Ceja. “In 1990, we had an 8 percent completion rate for bachelors or higher. We’re seeing those numbers move in the right direction, but we need to do more to provide the resources and support that Hispanic students need to persist.”

The main goal of the initiative is simple - to make sure Hispanic students not only enter but complete college. To achieve that goal takes a “cradle-to-career agenda,” Ceja said. It starts with early learning, mentoring programs, advanced placement or AP courses, and science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, courses.

Both African-American and Hispanics are disproportionately impacted and have less access to STEM and AP courses, according to Ceja.

“We all talk about the importance of STEM, but I don’t think that parents or administrators sometimes realize that we‘re not offering the full range of STEM courses, so we’re putting our kids at a disadvantage.”

Through the bi-annual Civil Rights Data Collection, she said they can pinpoint by state and school district where those gaps exist and target outreach.

“For our initiative, STEM is a huge priority because we are seeing the trends in terms of the future workforce; it’s going to be in STEM. We have to plant the seed as early as the early learning years … to expose children to the different pathways available to them, so that when they’re interested in a STEM major in college, they can persist through those next four years.”

To have more courses you need teachers.

“Eight percent of teachers in this country that are in the classroom are Hispanic,” said Ceja. “If you break it down by gender, 2 percent of those Hispanic teachers are male. We have to do more to incentivize the teaching profession for the Hispanic community and to create opportunities into having more teachers in the STEM pipeline.”

Celebrating with action

Alejandra_Ceja_and_Lauren_Larson“One of the things we realized—and especially being a Latina myself—is that you can’t just celebrate a 25-year anniversary and commemorate it with a one-day celebration, so we launched an Anniversary Year of Action with the support of the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, last September at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.”

She said the year of action gave them an opportunity to highlight a strategy while involving the community in the celebration. It includes outreach events, a call for commitments to action and a call for bright spots.

“Walking away from the negative deficit-based narrative that existed in 1990 and talking about the progress that we’re seeing to date,” she said. “Reframing that narrative is why we decided the Anniversary Year of Action was important.”

 “We’re going to be doing outreach events in areas that traditionally haven’t seen a growth of Hispanic students before and now you’re seeing the reflection of this growing population in our public school system,” said Ceja. “Focusing on how we bring the resources from the federal level down to communities. For example, we’ve gone into communities in the South where we do workshops on financial aid and bring awareness to the billions of dollars available.” 

A commitment to action is an opportunity for communities to come together to address an existing gap in their community. In California, the city of El Monte committed to financial literacy by creating a pilot program where every first grader will have access to a savings account. Ceja says it’s an opportunity to also educate parents. In June, the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago committed $3.3 million to early childhood education.

“These are commitments that stay in the community and will have a direct impact on those Hispanic Students.”

Visit the program's website for more information or to share “bright spots” in your community. 

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