June 30, 2004
I went back to my high school to be this year's graduation keynote speaker. Twelve years after I left the place, not much has changed for its graduating seniors.
My high school is a typical overcrowded, underfunded inner city school, packed wall-to-wall with black, Asian and Latino students from surrounding neighborhoods. Many of them are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Many of them are also statistically poor or "disadvantaged" by most measures.
Looking out at them from the stage, I couldn't help but think about the students who were missing that momentous rite of passage.
According to a report on the education of Latinos issued last year by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 28 percent of Latino students drop out of high school, compared to 7 percent of white students and 13 percent of black students.
One student who was notably absent was a young man who'd been killed in street violence during his senior year. His classmates gave him a moving tribute and proclaimed him an eternal member of their class.
Safety is a huge concern both outside and inside my old high school. Metal detectors greet you as you ascend the steps to the front entrance while armed police officers check your bag and scan you from head to toe. This is the reality at most Bronx high schools but reflects a problem of national proportions.
"Hispanic and black students are more likely than white students to feel too unsafe to go to school," the education study concluded. One in 10 Latino and black students "reported being threatened or injured on school property in the previous 12 months."
I also lived through similar situations. I remember having to be escorted home from volleyball practice after hours. Sadly, more than a decade later, students are still not feeling any safer or protected.
Looking at the graduating class in my old high school, I wondered how many of them would make it to college, how many would graduate, how many would go into corporate America, how many would start their own business. This group, as well as thousands of similar ones across the country, could help usher in a new era of Latino educational achievement. That would make for a truly memorable homecoming.
Juleyka Lantigua is a free-lance journalist in New York City. She can be reached at email@example.com.