Report finds education disparities among Asian subgroups in California

Pomona College Dean Sefa Aina urges policymakers to address education disparities among Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and native Hawaiians in California.
Pomona College Dean Sefa Aina urges policymakers to address education disparities among Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and native Hawaiians in California.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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A report released in Los Angeles today reveals what its authors call grave disparities in educational achievement between Asian-Americans, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in California.

For one Asian-American subgroup, the Hmong of Southeast Asia, the idea that all Asians are academic high achievers is a dangerous myth. Nearly half of Hmong adults don’t have a high school diploma.

It’s dangerous, says University of California researcher Lois Takahashi, because the myth keeps the struggles of Hmong families out of the policymaking spotlight. She says statistics about the much larger Samoan, Guamanian and Tongan populations in California are just as troubling.

"One fifth of Pacific Islanders in our grades 9-12 are expected to drop out by grade 12," Takahashi said. "That’s very similar and almost equivalent to the dropout rate for Latinos in the state."

Most of those dropouts are bound to falter in life. The teens’ struggles and the shortcomings of schools to address their needs play out in cities such as Hawthorne, the center of the Southland’s Tongan-American community. The Tongan Community Service Center is located there in a modest four-room office on Inglewood Avenue.

Alisi Tulua-Tata leads a support group called Ta’ahine ‘o moana – “The Women of the Ocean.” It’s a group for Tongan-American women in high school and college.

The seven who show up on this night grew up in this area, far from their parents’ homeland. "I think it’s really important for you to know where you come from, and where your parents come from," she told the young women, "because there are so many different stories tied to each of the villages, and I think a lot of times as Tongans, that almost forms your identity, like, ‘Oh that girl can dance because her family is from Mu’a.'"

One of the interns offers a geography lesson about the South Pacific islands just north of New Zealand. Brian Hui, the Tongan center’s program director, says there are wide cultural and communication gaps between immigrant parents and their kids.

"The kids who grew up here, they’re born in Lennox, they’re born in Hawthorne, they’re not born in the islands," Hui said, "it’s a completely different place and so the expectations that the parents have for them may not apply as appropriately as if there were being raised in Tonga."

Those differences follow many teens to school and sap their motivation to stay there. Many feel pressure to become breadwinners for the family – especially if their parents discourage them from thinking about college.

Mia Sili saw it first hand. She graduated from Leuzinger High School in Lawndale a few years ago. "Just noticing my peers, not only drop out of high school, not going to classes, not getting the best grades, maybe just having resources for us," Sili said.

That’s what she would have wanted back then – resources to counter the apathy about education she faced at home. Sili found a way to excel. She’s close to earning her nursing degree at Mount St. Mary’s College.

The biggest challenge is that current data lumps these ethnic groups with higher performing ones, and obscures the problems. San Gabriel Valley State Assemblyman Mike Eng is proposing further study of the data – the way medical researchers did when they separated breast cancer rates for women from those for men.

"We have homogenized this model minority and basically made them invisible even as we have made women invisible if we were to aggregate data for breast cancer, and that’s how critical this is," Eng said.

Even in times of scarce resources, Eng said, this is the time to start narrowing the wide education disparities between Asian-Americans, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.