WASHINGTON – Kenrry Alvarado,a 17-year-old senior at Bell Multicultural High School,can’t decide if he wants to study biomedical engineering,civil engineering or economics. But he knows one thing for sure.
“Yeah,I’m going to college,” Kenrry said.
On Monday,Kenrry was one of a handful of students to ask President Barack Obamaabout his plans to aid Latino education. The president visited the high school for a town hall with students,parents and teachers. The event,presented by Univision and hosted by anchorman Jorge Ramos,is to air later Monday.
Kenrry asked Obama about college affordability after Ramos told the president that just one out of eight Hispanic students reaches college.
“Before,a student was able to receive two scholarships a year to pay for college. Now that student can only have one,” Kenrry said. “What is your government going to do to keep the Pell scholarship without cutting the budget for education?”
Obama replied: “Well,first of all,I expect you to go to college so I’m confident that you’re going to succeed. I believe in you.”
He said he increased Pell grants by $800 per year and made them available to more students.
Kenrry said he was happy that the program will have more money but still had questions. Some project that the Pell grant program will run a deficit,and Kenrry said he wanted to know what Obama plans to do about that.
Kenrry’s parents are from El Salvador,where Obama visited last week on his five-day visit to Latin America. Kenrry was born in the U.S.
“The education’s not so good in El Salvador. That’s why many people travel up to the U.S. to receive their education,” he said.
One in five students in the United States is Hispanic. According to the 2010 census,there are 50.5 million Hispanics in the United States,16 percent of the population,and they accounted for more than half the national population growth from 2000 to 2010.
“While Latinos have grown demographically,we haven’t seen comparable levels of educational attainment or even growth in college attainment,” said Frances Contreras,associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington in Seattle,in an interview Sunday. Contreras is the author of a book due out in June: “Achieving Equity for Latino Students: Expanding the Pathway to Higher Education Through Public Policy.”
She said one of the most immediate solutions would be to pass the DREAM Act,which would provide permanent residency to students who arrived in the U.S. as minors,are in good academic standing and acquire a college degree or join the military.
“It makes sense to invest in already achieving students,” Contreras said. “It’s much cheaper to invest in them now as opposed to having a low wage worker at the end of the spectrum.”
The president has been a strong proponent of the legislation.
“We need to pass the DREAM Act,” he told the Bell audience. “I believe that we can still get it done.”
Obama said Hispanics must keep the pressure on Congress to make sure the legislation is approved. He stressed that a majority of Democratic senators voted for the DREAM Act when it failed to become law last year in a 55-41 vote. The House had approved the bill the day before 216-198.
“Given the census figures,I think Republicans are going to have to make sure that they do something that’s of vital interest to the Latino community,” Jose Rico said in an interview. He is deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. “And this is an easy one.”
He said the law would apply to students who have been responsible,are doing well in school and have no criminal record.
“They want to contribute to our country,they are here by no fault of their own,” he said. “So it’s very hard for me to understand how anybody could be against it.”
Bell is part of the Columbia Heights Education Campus,which also includes a middle school. Bell ranked third in the metropolitan area in the Washington Post’s “Challenge Index 2010,” which ranks schools according to the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests that students take. Of 172 schools,Bell had the highest number of students – 84 percent – who qualified for free or reduced lunches,a rough measure of poverty.
Hispanic Link reporter Bianca Fortis also contributed to this story.