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Study: Latinos in Oakland Ill-Taught and Vulnerable

One effort to counter problems described in the new report: the Homies Empowerment program library, offering books about Latino culture.
One effort to counter problems described in the new report: the Homies Empowerment program library, offering books about Latino culture.
Report offers recommendations to help city's fastest-growing minority group

They score well below average on standardized tests. Close to a third will drop out before graduation. They are unprepared to enter the workforce. More than a quarter of them live below the poverty line.  And Oakland lacks the resources to help. These are some of the bleak findings from a new study released this month on Oakland's Latino boys and young men, whom the study describes as one of the city’s “most vulnerable groups.”

The report, funded by the California Endowment, a private health foundation headquartered in Los Angeles, found that Latino males between the ages of six and 25 are more often associated with increased violence, lower educational outcomes and limited employment opportunities.

More than a year in the making, the Latino Men and Boys Project was commissioned by the Unity Council, a Fruitvale district-based community development nonprofit, as part of the Endowment’s 10-year initiative to make East Oakland and 13 other communities healthy, safer places to live. The Endowment is funding similar projects in Fresno and Los Angeles.

The report addresses four areas: school attendance, violence prevention, employment and health.

“We focused on identifying root causes for disparities among Latinos,” said Paul Flores, lead researcher for the project, whose interviews with students, teachers, community leaders, gang members and day laborers helped inform the study. “We noticed a real lack of information when it comes to Latinos in Oakland, so the study was an effort to fill that.”

Latino enrollment in Oakland public schools has increased from 25 to 37 percent since 2000, while the number of Latino teachers only increased from 10 to 11 percent in that time, according to the California Department of Education. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in Oakland, and one of the largest, second only to African-Americans.

“There’s been in jump in the number of Latinos living in Oakland,” Flores said. “The city and the services they provide are unprepared to deal with the increase, especially in the schools.”

Randall Bustamante, an English teacher at Mandela High School and one of the teachers interviewed for the study, agreed.

“There just aren’t enough educators that these kids can relate to,” said Bustamante, who’s been teaching at the Fruitvale school for six years. “I do feel that school curriculums don’t reflect the community they serve.”

This disconnect, the study finds, helps explain problems like truancy and gang affiliation. The California Healthy Kids Survey, a statewide assessment of student health and academic performance, found that 10 to 14 percent of Latino youth 18 and under in Oakland participate in gangs. The Oakland school district does not provide an ethnic breakdown of truancy numbers.

“Every student that I know has been affected by gangs in one way or another,” said Bustamante. “If they’re not involved, they know somebody or have grown up around it.”

The Oakland Police Department estimates that there are about 10,000 gang-affiliated individuals within the city’s borders.

Adrian Arias, 22, one of the men interviewed for the Men and Boys project, was one of those kids. The Oakland native grew up in the city’s Fruitvale neighborhood, where he says he was continuously exposed to gang members and activity. His brother and cousins were affiliated with the Norteños gang. “I was always around them as a kid,” he said. “At around 15, I became a part of them. I was never jumped in but I hung out with them, and was always there.”

Arias moved between four high schools, he said, before dropping out his senior year. He is currently working full-time at a warehouse in Newark.

The Latino Men and Boys project provides recommendations for reversing these trends. A number of the study’s participants, including Bustamante, said they believe more after school and employment programs, targeted to Latino youth by school and city officials, would help provide alternatives for young men like Arias.

“There is nothing available to them — no jobs, no programs — nothing,” said Flores. “The gang issue is a symptom of this, not the cause.”

Oakland has a 17.4 percent unemployment rate, and while no specific data is available for unemployment among Latinos, some analysts believe that the majority of Oakland’s jobless are black and Latino men. The Men and Boys project urges the expansion of job-training programs that serve Latino males, including creating Latino-specific programs that would help with the enforcement of Oakland’s language access policies by providing jobs to bilingual males. Many of the people interviewed for the study said translators are sometimes difficult to come by.

“People would tell us that they’d go to hospitals and they’d have to wait 10 minutes or more for a Spanish translator,” said Flores. “This need can be filled by these young men.”

Researchers suggested a number of programs to engage Latino youth, such as the YMCA’s gang intervention program, Homies Empowerment. The study’s participants told researchers that the mentorship program provided them with connections to adults who relate to them in ways others seem unable to. The boys and young men also cited the transformative power of actively helping others in the community, through activities like organizing free breakfasts for Latino day laborers.

The youth interviewed in this study said they felt a connection to the Homies Empowerment program and their mentors because, as the report’s authors put it, “adults don’t have any interest in knowing who they are and what they really want out of life.”

Another recommendation was to create classes that address Latino culture. At Oakland’s Castlemont and Fremont Federation High Schools, an after school class called "La Raza History Through Film" has received an enthusiastic response from students and faculty. The study points to the class as a model for lowering dropout rates and combating other disciplinary problems among Latinos. The class is currently unaccredited. Flores and a number of community leaders are working on a district-wide adoption proposal to present to Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith.

“We had kids tell us that they’d skipped all their classes, but come back just for this film course,” said Flores. “If we can show just how valuable these classes are, then it can be adopted across the district.”

The OUSD reports that 33 percent of Latino high school students drop out before graduation, and of the students who do graduate from high school, only 38 percent will have satisfied the requirements for enrollment at a four-year institution.

The next phase of the Unity Council’s study is to work with community organizations, school district officials and city government to implement their recommendations.

“We need to get this out there,” said Flores. “We developed a lot of good relationships with leaders in the community, and now we have to work to make these changes possible.”

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