Arizona’s rising generation

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By Kent Paredes Scribner, Ph.D.

As we approach Arizona’s Centennial celebration, we are given cause to both reflect on our past and look to the future. Phoenix Union High School District, founded in 1895, has had an important place in Arizona history and promises to play an integral role in shaping its future. Today, Phoenix Union serves the most diverse (80 percent Latino) and largest number of high school students (26,000) in Arizona. While outwardly similar to urban school systems in many other large metropolitan areas across the nation, we strive to be unlike most big-city districts.

Across America, Latinos are the largest minority group and 17 million are ages 17 and younger. In Arizona, well over 40 percent of our one million students are Latino. That percentage is certain to grow, since almost 60 percent of kindergarten through third grade students are of Hispanic origin. 

Unfortunately, many of these students do not start the educational race at the same starting line. Only half of the Latino student population takes advantage of early childhood education. Many are language minority. Nationally, only half of Hispanic students graduate from high school on time and those who make it to college often find themselves underprepared or unable to afford the skyrocketing costs of college tuition. 

Improving these educational attainment statistics is not a Hispanic issue; it is an American issue. This is not a future challenge; it is today’s challenge. The future of the United States is inextricably linked to Latino educational success. If America is to remain competitive, improving Latino educational achievement must play a significant role.

Thankfully, graduation rates and dropout rates in Phoenix Union do not look like those of struggling urban districts. Our graduation rate has climbed 25 percentage points in the past 10 years. Honors and advanced placement course-taking has doubled while general curriculum has been aligned to state, national and international standards. We have instituted college-preparatory programs that provide students with the skills, strategies and guidance necessary to experience post-secondary success. In 2008, only 340 students voluntarily took the ACT College Exam. Today, every junior (over 4,500) takes the test at no cost to the students or families. We have now instituted ACT, EXPLORE and PLAN exams for ninth and 10th graders, to monitor college and career interest and readiness earlier in their high school career. Still, it is not enough.

We continue to strive to transform the culture of urban education in Phoenix to one of high expectations, rigor and college readiness through partnerships with business, foundations, nonprofits, colleges and universities. We do not operate from a deficit model, attempting simply to minimize students’ failure. In today’s economy, it is not enough to merely complete high school. Rather, we are moving toward a new paradigm of possibilities. This new paradigm seeks to prepare every student for success in college, career and life. 

Accordingly, in the next chapter of Arizona history, our students must not be viewed as disadvantaged. They are a rising generation of Arizona innovators, leaders and workers. In Arizona’s new century, top American corporations are looking for future employees who are bilingual, bicultural, collaborative, resilient and creative problem solvers. A great many of our students already possess these attributes.

A decision to pass on this challenge will marginalize a majority of future Arizona adults. A sustained effort from all of us is required to prevent an Arizona made up of some “haves” and many “have-nots.”     

As we celebrate our Centennial, we are reminded that today’s students are tomorrow’s future. Arizona, as a state, is not made – it is in the making. 

Kent Paredes Scribner, Ph.D., was recently appointed to President Obama’s White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. A network of Latino leaders and key community stakeholders will convene in Phoenix in conjunction with the Arizona Centennial celebration for a White House Hispanic Community Action Summit, to identify and develop new or expanded projects, public-private partnerships or other action-oriented programs to address policy issues such as the economy and job growth, education, health care and immigration.

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