In Dallas, White House official says community colleges are gateway for Latino students
September 12, 2009

Community colleges serve a critical role as the gateway to higher education for Latino students, a federal education official stressed to a group of educators Friday.

Written by Katherine Leal Unmuth, The Dallas Morning News

Community colleges serve a critical role as the gateway to higher education for Latino students, a federal education official stressed to a group of educators Friday.

"In the Latino community, not enough of us are going to college, but when we go, where we start is at the community college," said Juan Sepúlveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. "This is our jump into the college system."

Sepúlveda, who led President Barack Obama's Texas campaign, spoke Friday at El Centro College's West Dallas campus, and later at Mountain View College. The president has pushed to give $12 billion in stimulus funds to community colleges over the next 10 years.

According to Dallas County Community College District figures, 28 percent of students enrolled last fall at their campuses were Latino.

Sepúlveda, a Mexican-American voting rights leader, previously lived in San Antonio and grew up in Topeka, Kan.

The initiative was created by President George Bush in 1990.

Sepúlveda also said that the Obama administration is pushing for national standards on which to grade schools, instead of having states create their own systems, such as Texas' TAKS program.

"What our sons and daughters get or what's expected of them as far as their reading or math level is all based on where we live," Sepúlveda said. "The level of expectation could go up or down depending on what state you're in."

However, Texas is one of a few states refusing to work with other states on creating such standards.

DCCCD Chancellor Wright Lassiter and state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, attended the event in addition to college and high school students.

Sepúlveda mostly gathered ideas and spoke about Obama's broad educational goals.

He mentioned that the president supports passage of the Dream Act, which would offer a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrant college students. The crowd broke into applause.

Anchía said he'd like Obama to push for passage of the act separate from overall immigration reform.

"It would be a signal to the Latino community that the president continues to be engaged," he said.

Sepúlveda also urged higher pay for the most talented teachers, college loan forgiveness for those who decide to become educators and the importance of improving data systems for school districts.

In addition, he mentioned that the government is simplifying the federal financial aid form online and including a Spanish version.

Educators also spoke.

Elizabeth Tamez advocated for faith-based initiatives, citing her work with the Baptist General Convention of Texas' outreach efforts in Hispanic churches.

"We're capitalizing on the churches and congregations," she said. "Because the pastor and the priest already have that respect from families."

Andrew Goldsmith, a community liaison at Dallas' Quintanilla Middle School, said Texas textbooks must include more Mexican and Hispanic history.

"When they study the history of their people it's a very demeaning history," he said. "People have to have self-esteem."

Sepúlveda mentioned that Thelma Melendez, the newly appointed assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, will probably address the challenge of the increasing number of students with limited English proficiency.

He said the former superintendent of the Pomona, Calif., schools learned English as a second language herself.

Brizette Aguilar, 18, walked from Dallas' aging Pinkston High School across the street to the new El Centro satellite campus to watch the event.

"I hope they do what they say they're going to do," she said. 

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