Four Harper's Choice Middle School Hispanic students led a community forum last night to combat negative stereotypes about their culture and raise awareness of the problems Hispanic immigrants encounter in attaining quality education, employment and housing.
Seventh-graders Juan Linares, Marco Rodriguez and JoDan Garza and eighth-grader Roberto Mejia organized the Community Forum on Hispanic Issues under the guidance of Rick Frankle, the school's gifted and talented resource teacher.
They presented their views to about 40 people at Kahler Hall in Harper's Choice village, including County Executive Charles I. Ecker, county Office on Human Rights representatives, Hispanic community leaders, teachers, school administrators and parents.
Atholton High School graduate and Syracuse University student Octavio "Andy" Blanco moderated the forum and encouraged the audience to suggest ideas on how to improve conditions for Hispanic students and immigrant families.
The project is part of a voluntary program which allows students to identify a problem, create a solution and present it to an audience.
The students said they are offended by stereotypes that they say cast Hispanics as "stupid," poor and more likely to drop out of school, get in trouble and work in menial jobs.
"They're just racial remarks but they continue to affect us every day," said Marco.
Mr. Blanco said, "I have to agree with these young men. There's a perception of Hispanic students as not being up to par with the rest of the school population. I encountered that myself.
"To be fully assimilated, we need to break down barriers that hold us back," he said.
Marco recited Board of Education figures showing that the dropout rate for Hispanic students in Howard in 1992-93 was less than that of the school population as a whole, and that more than 20 percent of Hispanic students participate in gifted and talented programs.
The Harper's Choice students also advocated adding textbooks and lessons in the curriculum about Hispanic history and culture.
Juan explained that even though his parents were well-educated in Puerto Rico, they had a difficult time making it financially when the family first moved to the mainland. Recent immigrants with little education or knowledge of English have a much harder time, he said.
"Many work at low-paying jobs and their children fail at school because there's little support at home," he said. "They're not aware of the county services that can help them, and they rarely get out of the cycle of failure."
The students have identified steps that educators and government can take to improve conditions and opportunities for Hispanic immigrants in Howard County.
Among those are expanding and intensifying the English for Speakers of Other Languages program; designating a Hispanic culture and history month; requesting government to publish information about programs and services in both English and Spanish; instituting sensitivity training for employers and employment training programs for immigrants; and creating mentor programs for Hispanic students and support networks for immigrant families.
Wilde Lake High School assistant principal Moreno Carrasco said educators and the community at large must assume "ownership" of a situation that allows Hispanic immigrants to lag in school and remain in a "cycle of poverty."
The students are convinced that their message will be heard.
"When people see kids go up there and talk seriously, they will want to hear what we have to say," said JoDan.
Mr. Frankle says he believes the project will achieve results "because [the students] have something important to say. . . ."