Jason Spencer, Houston Chronicle, June 30, 2004
For the second straight year, Texas has the lowest percentage of high school graduates in the nation, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study released Tuesday.
Seventy-seven percent of Texans age 25 and older had a high school degree in 2003, the same percentage as a decade earlier, when Texas ranked 39th in the country. So while other states have seen their graduation rates improve — a record 85 percent of Americans have high school degrees — Texas is treading water.
The results could be harmful to the state’s economy as less educated people enter the work force, the state demographer said.
“The downside is Texas could be less competitive,” said Steve Murdock at the Texas State Data Center at the University of Texas-San Antonio. “It could be poorer because we know educational attainment is the best predictor of income.”
In 2002, the average high school dropout earned less than $19,000, compared with more than $27,000 for the typical graduate, according to the study.
Texas’ graduation rate is worst among Hispanics, the state’s fastest-growing population. Barely half of Texas’ 4.3 million Hispanics age 25 and older have a high school degree, according to the report.
Omar Garza, a 27-year-old shoveling asphalt Tuesday with a road repair crew on Texas Avenue, said he regrets dropping out of Rosenberg’s Lamar High School. He earns $8 an hour.
“I needed one more semester to graduate,” said Garza, who left Mexico for Texas as a teen. “I would like to finish. I don’t want to do this all my life.”
Garza said he quit school partly because he didn’t want to take classes in English as a second language.
“I also met a girl, and you know how it is,” he said. “We fell in love and started having kids.”
In the Houston Independent School District, where 57 percent of the 211,000 students are Hispanic, administrators believe that as many as 40 percent of the city’s students never graduate. In May, HISD called together 350 residents with various backgrounds to offer solutions to the problem. A task force is reviewing those suggestions.
Immigrant students present a particularly difficult challenge for Texas schools, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. Even so, Texas’ graduation rate has increased every year for the past decade, she said.
Other states with large immigrant populations also found themselves near the bottom of the list. California ranked 42nd, New York came in at 36th and Florida was 35th.
The numbers are skewed, Ratcliffe said, by those who come to the state as adults with no education.
“We have large immigration from Mexico and Central America and that’s influencing those numbers,” she said.
That influx, however, doesn’t entirely account for the gap between Texas’ Hispanics and Anglos, 91 percent of whom graduated high school, said María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, director of the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio. The nonprofit research organization founded in 1973 monitors Texas’ dropout prevention efforts.
“Nationally 85 percent of young people under 18 who are Hispanic are born in the U.S.,” Montecel said. “The issue of dropouts is an issue of how well schools in the state are able to educate Latino students rather than a question of immigration. It is in our schools. That’s where we need to focus.”
Socorro Herrera, who teaches at one of two Community Family Centers that help primarily Hispanics, said many of her students are Spanish speakers.
Herrera said she sees three reasons why students enter GED programs at the southeast Houston center on Avenue E.
“First, there is the language barrier and they want to learn English. Then there are students who just cannot pass the graduation tests. Third, they have personal problems like pregnancies or other matters,” Herrera said.
Loucious Windom, 21, said he got his GED through the Houston Community College a year ago after realizing he wants to become a teacher. He had dropped out of Benji’s Academy Charter School in Houston.
“I had it in my mind that I’d never have a chance to catch back up. I was the oldest kid in my school,” Windom said. He now works in the children’s museum cafe, earning $6.75 an hour. “I just got tired of sitting at home. I wanted to be a teacher and I knew I had to have some kind of diploma and I made my mind up to get it.”
Chronicle reporter Jo Ann Zuñiga contributed to this story.