SPENCER MICHELS: For years, studies have shown that the chances that a Hispanic child would drop out of school have been greater than for any other group. At age 16, Aaron Chavez dropped out of a San Jose, California, high school.
AARON CHAVEZ: I guess you could say I started going to drugs, and started hanging out with the wrong crowd.
SPENCER MICHELS: With gangs?
AARON CHAVEZ: Yeah, with gangs.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chavez, whose schoolwork had been good, but then declined, says some teachers were pushing him out.
AARON CHAVEZ: There was a teacher that would stereotype people like gang members, and he would pick at them. No shame. It was putting me down.
SPENCER MICHELS: In his junior year, he quit Mount Pleasant High School, which is 50 percent Hispanic. Researchers believe that between 40 to 50 percent of young Hispanics leave school before finishing, or in the case of many immigrants, never attend.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics continue to have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group, although the graduation rates for black and American Indian youth are almost equally low. A 2005 study by Harvard and the Urban Institute found that only 54 percent of Hispanic males in California graduate from high school, compared to 71 percent for all students.
And the report says schools dramatically underestimate the number of dropouts. It concludes that large urban school districts have become "dropout factories." Both recent immigrants and Hispanics who have been in the U.S. for generations have high dropout rates, especially when they're poor, according to Robert Cervantes of the California Department of Education.
ROBERT CERVANTES: The dropout rate for non-immigrant Hispanics that are here for first, second, third, fourth generation, depending upon the socioeconomic status, is still high, however you run the numbers.
SPENCER MICHELS: He says poverty itself doesn't cause dropouts; it's that many schools don't inspire Hispanic students.
ROBERT CERVANTES: The majority of them-- not all of them, but certainly the majority of them-- attend de facto segregated schools where they have the least qualified teachers, the less enriched curriculum; programs that other kids have that they don't have access to.
SPENCER MICHELS: Another reason cited for lack of academic advancement among Hispanics is a culture that values staying close to home. That's according to Esperanza Zendejas, superintendent of a San Jose School District.
ESPERANZA ZENDEJAS: In the Hispanic culture, oftentimes the talk of university is more like, "Oh, they're going to leave the house, and what are we going to do?"
SPENCER MICHELS: But new efforts are being made in San Jose and throughout the state to stem the Hispanic dropout tide and get kids into college. At Mount Pleasant High -- ironically the school Aaron Chavez dropped out of -- several approaches are used to keep kids interested in school.
TEACHER: So would you take your graph paper, please, and put a vertical line straight down the middle?
SPENCER MICHELS: Besides the traditional remedial classes for low-achieving students, Mount Pleasant and 2,000 other schools across the nation provide special daily classes for slightly better-performing students through a program called Avid.
STUDENT: Our presentation is going to be about building the perfect application.
SPENCER MICHELS: In addition to readying students for the SAT's, college essays, and advanced placement classes, Avid provides daily, continuous contact with the same teachers over four years of high school.
STUDENT: There's always someone there. You have the teacher's phone number if you need help.
STUDENT: You're with a group of students for four years, so it's like we're all family. Everyone knows each other pretty well.
SPENCER MICHELS: But special classes like these usually exclude very poor achievers, and don't always work for everyone enrolled -- Aaron Chavez, for example.
AARON CHAVEZ: Avid was hard. I was not used to college prep. They were helpful for other students that were making it, but for kids like me, I didn't have no goals or aims.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chavez finally returned to school, graduated, and entered community college, because of another special class called Puente, or "Bridge." It's designed to acquaint Hispanic students with literature written by Hispanics.
STUDENT: Having Latino authors there to back us up is showing other people, you know, we can learn about ourselves and still be successful.
AARON CHAVEZ: It wasn't the literature, it was the teacher. The teacher would take the time and stop and talk to me -- treat me like a person than a gang member on the streets, and always looked at me as a person.
ESPERANZA ZENDEJAS: So this is last year right here?
SPOKESPERSON: Yeah, that's from last year.
SPENCER MICHELS: School Superintendent Zendejas acknowledges that teachers are a key to preventing dropouts.
ESPERANZA ZENDEJAS: You can't assign your best teachers to teach your best students. You have to start changing the thought, and your best teachers have to work with your most disenfranchised kids.
SPENCER MICHELS: Across San Jose, another program, called the Foundry, targets Hispanic and other at-risk youngsters who don't like school, students like Anthony Varela, who talked about his experiences last year before he graduated.
ANTHONY VARELA: I'm doing literature. I'm doing "Hamlet."
SPENCER MICHELS: Do you like it?
ANTHONY VARELA: No.
SPENCER MICHELS: Why not?
ANTHONY VARELA: Because I think it's boring.
SPENCER MICHELS: Before arriving at the Foundry, Varela was slipping into behavior patterns that didn't help him achieve in the classroom.
ANTHONY VARELA: It seems so easy to just, like, not do your work and to just lay back and hang out with friends and do drugs, and it seems so much harder to, like, do your work and then be successful.
SPENCER MICHELS: While he still didn't like school, Varela did relate to the Foundry, with a largely Latino student body of about 75. It's a one-year program for chronic problem-makers. Four teachers plus an army of volunteers attack the dropout problem by giving each kid attention -- something many have been missing -- and structure and responsibility too.
Each student has to punch a time clock. In a math class held in a woodshop, the teacher tries to work with each student. Somehow, many of them start liking school, and in Enrique Flores' case, leaving his gang membership behind.
ENRIQUE FLORES: I'm just staying away from them. I still say, you know, "What's up?" To them once in a while, but that's just it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Do you do homework?
ENRIQUE FLORES: Yeah. Since I've been here, I've been doing a lot of homework.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Foundry puts emphasis on Latino culture, convinced it will inspire students to read and learn.
STUDENT: "A Chicano is both Hispanic and Indian. The term 'Hispanic' alone negates our Indian heritage."
SPENCER MICHELS: Part of the curriculum for the Latino studies class comes from an organization called the Hispanic Education and Media Group, which tries to convince schools to teach an appreciation for Latino culture and history. Margot Segura is executive director.
MARGOT SEGURA: When you understand the contributions of your community, then you have a purpose. You know why it's important to study. You know why it's important to read literature.
SPENCER MICHELS: Giving students individual attention, holding small seminars on drugs and alcohol, has been effective. Counselors say Foundry students rarely go back to crime, and most students stay clean and sober, and eventually re-enter regular school. But recently, the County Education Office has curtailed several of the foundry's programs, including field trips.
Sustaining alternative programs like this has been difficult, especially with new nationwide emphasis on academic test results in the "No Child Left Behind" program. But even if high school programs like the Foundry do manage to survive, they are not enough, according to Russell Rumberger, professor of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
RUSSELL RUMBERGER: Well, I think high school is basically too late. A lot of these problems are ones that have accumulated over the years of schooling prior to high school.
SPENCER MICHELS: Rumberger says that despite some individual school successes, state and federal efforts are largely stagnant. And so for the Latino population, the dropout problem is likely to get worse, not better.
RUSSELL RUMBERGER: The group that's most at risk, Latinos, is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, so that alone is likely to increase the incidence of this problem in the absence of some kind of intervention effort.
SPENCER MICHELS: That intervention, Rumberger says, must come long before high school in order to break a dropout pattern that has existed for a long time and shows little improvement.