How to Close the Racial Achievement Gap

The Latino students in this Phoenix mentorship program all go to college. More importantly, 85 percent of them graduate.

PHOENIX, Ariz.--On the 12th floor of a Phoenix office building, Rosemary Ybarra-Hernandez doodled on her calendar when the phone rang. It was a mother asking for college advice. In her honey sweet grandmother's tone, Ybarra-Hernandez answered a mother's uncertain questions.

"Is it appropriate to ask what type of scholarships are available?" the mother asked.

"Absolutely," Ybarra-Hernandez said. "You need to ask them everything. This is your son."

"Oh, okay," the woman said.

Ybarra-Hernandez asked where the student had applied for college.

"He hasn't yet," the mother replied.

A shriek squeezed from Ybarra-Hernandez as if her lungs had suddenly popped.

Earlier that morning, Ybarra-Hernandez had listened as James Shelton III, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Education Department, spoke to a packed auditorium about President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. Shelton's talk was part of a community discussion about how to fix the minority education gap. Across the U.S., minority men have higher incarcerations rates, higher unemployment rates, and lower rates of high school and college graduation than white men. My Brother's Keeper is a public-private partnership that, among other things, sponsors and provides funding for mentorship programs, like the one Ybarra-Hernandez has run with success for 10 years.

Through her Aguila Youth Leadership Institute, she's helped minority students in Phoenix graduate from high school and navigate the process of applying to college. Her students have gone on to attend colleges across the country like Princeton, Purdue, Brown University, and Notre Dame. More than 85 percent of her students come from families living in poverty, and about 70 percent will be the first in their family to attend college. Aguila is the kind of program Arizona desperately needs as it faces a minority education gap that scholars call an emergency.

"We're suffering a silent heart attack," says Joseph Garcia, director of Latino Public Policy Center at the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University, referring to the state's education gap.

Back in 2001, the Morrison Institute released a study that warned of impending consequences if the state failed to better educate its growing Latino population. "Today's young Latinos will be entering their prime working years just when experienced employees will be needed to help replace the baby boomers," the report read. Without action, Arizona's future could be one of higher poverty, a dearth of skilled workers, and an exodus of companies. As a solution, the report recommended the state "Educate, educate, educate!"

A few years ago the Morrison Institute published a follow-up report. In 10 years, little had changed, and some things had worsened. The authors offered a stark assessment: "Arizona simply cannot wait another 10 years for another report, another dire warning or another undereducated generation."

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Ybarra-Hernandez pulled close a note pad on her desk.

"And do you know what his GPA is?" She asked the mother.

"3.5," the mother said.

"Wonderful" Ybarra-Hernandez said. "And he needs to keep that up, because he's going to need a merit scholarship."

Obama's program was developed with the knowledge that in just a few decades, current minorities will make up the majority of the American population. In Arizona, a minority to majority shift could happen in 15 years, according to the Morrison Institute report. The future is already here for those under 18. Arizona's young Latinos already outnumber their white counterparts. These are the state's future workforce. And they lag far behind in school.

In Arizona, Latino students score lower in every subject on the SATs compared with white students. And while more Latino students now take AP exams than ever before, collectively they score worse than a decade ago. There are many reasons for this, researchers say, and some of them have to do with money.

In 2011, Arizona ranked 49th in the country for K-12 educational funding compared to the size of its overall economy. It was 47th in the U.S. for per-pupil spending—29 percent below the national average, according to the Morrison Institute. This can lead to larger class sizes and fewer resources, like school counselors. A study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling reported that Arizona public schools had 742 students per student counselor. The national average was 478. For students who come from families in which no one has ever attended college, academic advisors are vital resources, guiding them through the nuances of applications and financial aid, and encouraging them to take the next step to college.

"The president was very clear that he wanted this mentoring component," Shelton said earlier that day at the conference in Phoenix. "And people were like, 'I don't know, doesn't that seem kind of small relative to the challenges we're talking about?' And the president said, 'Find anyone who's come from a background like, say, mine—anyone who's had any modicum of success in life—who doesn't begin their story with the people who cared enough to intervene.'"

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The Aguila office is four rooms in a glass building a few minutes from downtown Phoenix. The front desk looks like a bar table pulled from a Mexican restaurant. Over the couch hangs a Mexican rug, and college pendants line the walls.

Ybarra-Hernandez began her career in 1989 as an academic adviser at Arizona State University. "It was always my dream to help kids go to college," she says. She had no money to start the program, but her husband told her not to worry. They refinanced their home. Her four daughters all pitched in, and they ran Aguila out of a spare room. Ten years later, she has enough money from grants and donations to hire a few staffers, but still depends mostly on volunteers.

Students learn about Aguila mostly from word of mouth. Freshman, sophomores, and juniors who contact the program fill out an application and write four essays, which Ybarra-Hernandez says mainly serve to gauge their dedication. Once accepted--and nearly everyone is accepted--students find themselves part of a community where missed deadlines are met with phone calls from mentors who've passed through the program, and by the grandmotherly voice of Ybarra-Hernandez, which when needed can be more stern and compelling than a waved ruler.

The program is designed to raise expectations and provide students with a community of mentors. It does this by holding two meetings each month on Saturdays for five hours, which always begin with Cesar Chavez's prayer for farm workers: "Show me the suffering of the most miserable, so I will know my people's plight."

In the meetings, students learn how to fill out financial aid forms and applications, how to write résumés and essays, and how to be leaders in their communities. Near the end of the sessions, students divide into male and female groups where they learn about gender-specific barriers they might face in college, like sexual assault or peer pressure.

By the time they are seniors, Aguila students are part of a community in which nearly everyone will graduate high school and apply for college. Aguila has placed 800 students in 80 different universities here and abroad. And upending the trend of low-income, minority students enrolling in college but dropping out before earning degrees, nearly 85 percent of Aguila students will graduate from college.

Once students finish the program, they're expected to donate whatever time they can to help mentor younger students. Sal Macias did just this, and as he sits down at the long table in Aguila's front room, he recalls the day he nearly gave up in order to trim lawns with his uncle in California.

Macias applied to Aguila late his senior year. He was student body president of his high school in a low-income Phoenix neighborhood. He had good grades, but he was undocumented. His parents had brought him across the border as a young child, and his father found work in construction. As high school graduation neared, with no money to pay for tuition, and no financial aid, Macias' father paced the hallways of their home.

"It was the first time I saw him age," Macias says. "He realized for the first time in his life that he couldn't give his kids what they needed."

Macias had applied for scholarships, but none had come through. As an undocumented student, he thought he had only one option.

"I'll go to California," Macias told himself at the time, "work some landscaping, maybe do some classes at the community college. But more than likely I'll probably get married and call it a life."

The day after his graduation, one of the scholarships he'd applied for through Aguila arrived in the mail. He had a full ride to ASU. Later he was accepted to the school's law program.

"Month after month [during college], just as I was giving up, (Aguila) would have a session," Macias says. "And when you hear the inspirational stories that others have, you can't not be inspired. You believe. It's not some fantasy."

Ybarra-Hernandez fielded phone calls and answered questions from parents most the day. After work, she'd go home and eat dinner with her husband, then clear the table and spread out applications and college essays she needed to review. Last year she helped find $12 million in private scholarships for her students. This year she planned to beat that figure.

But before she left the office, a high school student walked in.

Rafael Garcia Gomez is a first generation child of parents from Mexico, whose father works construction.

"What schools have you applied to?" Ybarra-Hernandez asked.

Garcia held up his fingers and counted.

"Wartburg, Hastings College, UNM, U of A and ASU," Garcia said. "and I'm going to apply for St. Mary's today."

National Journal recently visited Phoenix to see how some local people and organizations have taken it upon themselves to prepare for the Latino majority population shift. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about how these people are shaping their community and the future of Phoenix.