New statistics show the Latino Achievement gap isn’t just a product of poor neighborhoods and low performing schools - it’s also found in public schools with the best reputations.
According to findings in a recent USC study, 46 percent of Latinos who graduated from California's top public high schools ended up enrolling in a community college after graduation. These schools had the highest Academic Performance Index scores in the state.
Students of other racial and ethnic groups from the same schools enrolled in community colleges at much lower rates: 19 percent of Asians, 23 percent of African Americans, and 27 percent of white students who graduated from those high performing schools enrolled in a community college. Larger percentages of whites and Asians enrolled in four-year colleges.
The results show that efforts to close the Latino achievement gap - which until now have been focused on impoverished neighborhoods - may not be enough.
South Pasadena is one example of how the gap has played out in well-off neighborhoods known for excellent public schools.
Six years ago, Imelda Landeros-Nava and Marco Nava made a life changing decision for their children’s education to move here from Cudahy, a mostly Mexican-American city in southeast Los Angeles County. But when their oldest son, Roman, got his first class schedule at South Pasadena High School, they were disappointed.
“When Roman was going to take biology in ninth grade, we actually had to go to the high school to ask them to place him in the biology class, the A through G requirement,” Marco Nava said.
A through G is the list of classed needed to qualify for the University of California. Without the right biology class, he'd never get into the prestigious school system.
It was a key decision. Roman, who did ultimately get the classes he needed, is now majoring in environmental biology at Cal State Northridge.
But he was in the minority among Latinos in his class. Of South Pasadena High's 2010 Latino graduates, 71 percent went straight to community college. By contrast, only about a third of the school’s white and Asian graduates that year attended community college. A larger percentage of whites and Asians at these schools went to four-year colleges than Latinos.
“Perhaps certain kinds of college pathways are promoted for different types of students,” said George Washington University education researcher Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux, who authored the study. "We know that tracking is real. We know that differential expectations for academic performance based on things like race and class are real."
She found similar college enrollment trends at high performing schools all over the state.
Malcom-Piqueux stopped short of saying high performing schools like South Pasadena High were stereotyping Latino students. She said other factors, including family finances could also lead students to choose to start at a cheaper, two-year college.
But it's a troubling trend either way, because community college completion rates - and their rates of transfer to four-year colleges - are low for Latinos in California. Latinos also do worse on standardized tests and are less likely to go to college at all.
Jeff Sanchez graduated from South Pasadena High School in 2010. He wanted to become a photojournalist but said he got little guidance at school on how to pursue the career. He said unless students took their lunch break to ask counselors for help, they didn't get any guidance in getting into college or where to go.
“The students had to go and seek the counselors out if they wanted any more information," he said.
As high school graduation neared, Sanchez could not benefit from the advantages his friend Roman Nava's family provided: parents with advanced degrees who actively advocated for his education and guided his college going decisions.
“My parents, they didn’t go to college. They had some schooling, but they didn’t know” how to enroll in college, Sanchez said.
He’s now at Pasadena Community College juggling part time work and struggling to get the classes he needs for his degree.
Leaders at the South Pasadena Unified School District have acknowledged the problem. About four years ago, they debated and adopted a plan to help the district’s Latino students, which at that point made up just shy of 20 percent of the student body.
Among the changes at South Pasadena High, the district's only high school: a Spanish for native speakers class to help students fulfill foreign language college entry requirements; all students are now enrolled in A-G classes; and extra counseling for Latino students. The school hired an additional college counselor to help Latino students go to college.
“We don’t want anyone to miss out on the opportunity to matriculate beyond high school, to college," said the school's principal, Janet Anderson. "And this group has traditionally been under-served. We recognized that and said: we can’t have a group that is under-served. We must meet their needs.”
The school does not track Latinos away from four year colleges and universities and into community college, Anderson said.
Counselor Sandra Jarrous is tasked with guiding the school's struggling Latino students to some sort of college after graduation.
"I feel that they don't have the drive. I feel that my purpose is to really get them to focus that they do have the opportunity to go to college and to do other things," she said in her college-flag decorated office.
She meets frequently with struggling students - twice a week or even daily, depending on how they're doing. When students' grades slip, she has teachers fill out weekly progress reports.
The efforts have started to pay off – over the last three years Latinos at the school have seen a 46 point jump in standardized test scores.
The real test will come in a few years, when 15-year-old Ruben Nava and his classmates graduate. His mom thinks the school still has a lot more work to do to help Latino families.
“Our students aren’t realizing their potential," Landeros-Nava said. "And that’s not just hurtful for them as individuals, but also it should be everyone’s concern because it’s hurtful for us as a state.”
She's part of a South Pasadena Latino parent group called Vecinos – which is Spanish for neighbors - which is meeting regularly with the principal to push for change.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux's last name. KPCC regrets the error.