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Y-Act: Mexican-American Students Fight for Educational Equity

When Kara Gagnon was a high school senior in Dalton, Massachusetts, she didn’t give much thought to the fact that there were four guidance counselors for the 140 students in her graduating class. But moving from suburban Dalton to Brooklyn made her realize how privileged she and her peers were.

Photos courtesy of Kara Gagnon.
Photos courtesy of Kara Gagnon.

Gagnon is an AmeriCorp/VISTA volunteer at Youth Action Changes Things, an 18-month-old Sunset Park group for young Mexican-Americans and recent immigrants. She says that she is astounded and appalled by the misinformation and racism she sees students facing in Brooklyn schools.

“There’s just general ignorance,” the 23-year-old notes. “For example, the counselors don’t always know much about immigration laws: they can’t answer the students’ questions. Some of the girls think that if they have a baby they’ll become legal so they get pregnant only to find out that this doesn’t help their status.”

Gagnon says that the role of guidance counselors is key to not only help students resolve personal problems, but in keeping them on track to complete high school as well as formulate post-secondary plans. Some of Brooklyn’s 58 high schools have an array of support services from social workers and guidance counselors to college advisors and tutors, but some are seriously understaffed.

Photos courtesy of Kara Gagnon.
Photos courtesy of Kara Gagnon.

A March 2007 report compiled by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) bears this out. The study evaluated the nation’s two largest school systems—New York and Los Angeles—focusing on the failure of guidance systems. Unlike Dalton, NESRI found that the ratio of students to guidance counselors in New York was 450-to-one. Furthermore, the report adds, demeaning comments from teachers and administrators were routine. Students were told: “You’ll end up in the ghetto like everyone else from this neighborhood.” “You can’t learn.” “You’re ugly and stupid.” Some New York City students reported being encouraged to drop out or pursue a G.E.D. rather than stay in school and receive a regular diploma.

Karla Sevilla, Y-ACT’s youth organizer, herself an immigrant from Mexico, hears statements like these from Y-ACT participants all the time. “Most of our students feel really alienated,” she begins. “Their parents usually don’t speak English and they feel that the schools keep them in the dark about alternatives, about tests they need to take to get into specialized schools and, later, college.”

What’s more, she is dismayed by Department of Education statistics that prove that the educational system is failing Latinos and Latinas: In 2007, the four-year graduation rate for Hispanics—Spanish speakers are lumped together so there are no figures specifically measuring Mexican-American progress—was 43 percent. By contrast, the rate for whites and Asians was 68.8 percent.

“If students are not emotionally strong, or can’t master the English language right away, they get frustrated.” Sevilla points out that the drop-out rate for immigrant students is very high. “There are so many myths, that if you’re illegal you can’t go to college, or that you won’t be able to get a good job anyway, so you might as well quit school now,” she says. “When a student says they want to drop out, the school’s response is usually, ‘Well, if you want to leave, the door is open.’”

Lack of English language proficiency amongst parents is another huge issue, Sevilla says. Although the Department of Education is mandated to provide translators at meetings with their teachers or counselors, when letters or report cards are sent home, the families have to fend for themselves. “One of our members got a note: ‘Your son is having problems in English Language Arts.’ Even when she had the message translated, how is she supposed to understand what that means?” Sevilla asks, her voice brimming with irritation and angst.

Based on their member’s experiences at six Brooklyn high schools—FDR, Fort Hamilton, Lafayette, James Madison, New Utrecht, and Telecommunications—Y-ACT advocates for a counselor-student ratio of 250-to-1, a ratio championed by the National School Counseling Association, and thinks counselors should meet students regularly, not only when there are emergencies. “We also want counselors to be culturally aware, know about different ethnicities, and not be homophobic,” Sevilla says.

Adriana Mendoza, Y-ACT’s 16-year-old founder, helped formulate the group’s injunctions. A Mexican-American honors student at the High School of Telecommunications, she says that she has been encouraged by faculty and guidance staff to prepare for the SAT and other exams and then apply to college in her senior year but her cousin who is enrolled at a different school was recently told to drop out. “The counselor should have taken the time to help her, give her options to make things better,” Mendoza says.

She, Gagnon, and Sevilla are incredulous that students are written off at the age of 17, and that’s where Y-ACT comes in: Helping parents and students find ways to advocate for themselves and their kids.

For its part, the Department of Education says that it is up to each school principal to determine how many days a week guidance services are available. Marge Feinberg, of the DOE Office of Communications and Media Relations, urges parents and students to direct complaints to the school principal or send them to [email protected]. She adds that all schools with grades 7 to 12 are required to have a guidance program with a certified counselor who supports student academic, personal, career, and educational development. Feinberg claims, “Guidance counselors do not tell students what to do or whether to go to college or the military or work. They guide them on options and provide them with information so the students can make informed decisions.”

Sevilla shrugs when she hears this response. “Most of our parents don’t have computers,” she says, so being told to send an e-mail is meaningless.

Gagnon also questions the city’s central control of the school system. “Change needs to happen from the bottom up. New York City is so diverse and neighborhoods are so different. Each community has its own unique needs. Having the Mayor and Chancellor control the educational system for the entire city doesn’t make sense.”

Gagnon believes that local control of the schools could address many of Y-ACT’s issues more effectively. “Bring in the people on the ground, parents, teachers, principals, students, and community activists, to figure out how to meet local needs. It’s the best way to improve things,” she says.

She compares the New York leviathan with the school system in her hometown of Dalton: “You could see a counselor if you wanted to. If you needed help they were there for you. You didn’t have to chase after them.” Although the economic, social, and—most importantly—political realities of the two places are vastly different, small towns might teach the Department of Education ways to be more responsive to diverse communities’ unique needs.


Eleanor J. Bader


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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