March 2003, Volume 1


Latin Roots, a new nonprofit organization, has two goals: strengthening the education of Latino students from elementary to high school, and promoting a wider understanding of Latino culture in New England. Latin Roots will prepare Latino students to assume greater leadership by combining a strong educational foundation with a broad understanding of their cultural heritage -- their “Latin Roots”. Our initial project focuses on Latino middle school students; specifically, improving their academic performance. This should reduce the high school dropout rate among Latinos, currently at a crisis level of 30 percent within most Latino communities. To do this we are working in conjunction with the Lowell Public School District.

With their support, we are designing a study to examine in depth Latino performance in middle school, where the gap in academic performance between Latinos and other groups starts to widen. We hope to design a comprehensive after school program expected to begin during the 2003-2004 academic year, based on the results of that study. It will contribute to efforts being prepared by the school district and Superintendent Karla Baehr, intended to guarantee Latino students a good education, and will support several academic areas, critical in overall performance. It will also introduce elements from their cultural background, to provide them with a greater sense of belonging.

In the future, we also will create programs aimed at a greater understanding of Latino culture.


Ned Strong is Executive Director of LASPAU, Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas, at Harvard University, and member of Latin Roots Board of Directors. Leonardo Vivas, CEO of Latin Roots, asked for his insights on several topics related to education, Latinos, and LASPAU’s connection with Latin Roots.

Q. What do you think about barring Affirmative Action as a method for strengthening minority participation in college?

A. It will keep college doors closed to minorities. It was only thirty years ago that students from minority groups even began to think about entering universities, when affirmative action offered them their first clear opportunity to go to college.

Today “quota” has become a buzzword. Some people say quotas are bad. But I don’t think quotas are the problem at all. We should focus on the benefits of affirmative action. I think that all students get a better education with greater diversity, i.e., a certain number of people from Latin America, from Asia, and from other ethnic groups. Studying with people from a variety of different backgrounds enriches the educational experience.

Q. How have Latinos performed in American universities?

A. In LASPAU’s experience, international students have been top performers. Take Colombian graduate students, studying in the U.S. with the COLCIENCIAS program, designed specially for high level professionals from that country. Their average grade is A minus. I don’t have data from foreign undergraduates at hand, but I bet it would show a similar pattern. On the other hand, GRE and SAT scores from different ethnic groups within the US are lower than non-minorities. The reason is that the former group is an elite population from Latin America. The latter usually come from disadvantaged environments. The SAT scores for minorities reveal an important gap.

Q. Why was the November 2002 referendum against bilingual education so massive? Is it a setback for a multicultural society or does it only reflect concern for low minority performance in Massachusetts?

A. Bilingual education has not met expectations in closing the ethnic performance gap. The referendum, however, was won because people did not understand much about the issues, and the question was posed in such a way that people thought it was better to get rid of bilingual education altogether, and use full immersion programs instead. The downside of the referendum’s outcome will be that people will loose their cultural roots more easily because of the elimination of bilingual education. So a fair answer would be that voters were concerned with low performance, but that the collateral effect will be a setback in promoting a more multicultural society.

When bilingual programs are successful, they typically have highly experienced and trained teachers, as has been the case in the Amigos school here in Cambridge. That is why the kids attending the bilingual schools perform as well — or even better — than those who attend the only-English school that works in tandem with Amigos.

Q. Why is LASPAU so eager to support Latin Roots? How can it benefit LASPAU and Harvard University?

A. Latinos are the fastest growing minority in the US. If 25 percent of the US is going to be speaking Spanish by the year 2020, we at LASPAU need to promote contacts between Latinos within the US and their countries of origin. Since our role is to enhance education in the Americas, contributing to a two-way interplay, we have a lot to offer in connecting students and strengthening their understanding of the Americas. Here is where Latin Roots comes in. Latin Roots is devoted to strengthening Latinos’ capabilities, it will benefit from LASPAU’s network in the Americas both in educational and cultural terms.

Our job is contributing to the development of Latin America, enhancing education and civil society, strengthening governmental capacity, hence favoring interplay of programs here and there. Latin America is a natural place for trade and cultural links, so it cannot be ignored. LASPAU has to pay attention to trends in Research and Development, training in higher education, and other related areas. For us, Latin Roots is like an open ear to what is taking place at the grassroots level in the US Latino community, especially regarding education.

Q. Where does your passion for Latin America come from?

A. I don’t know if it is passion or madness. I went to the Peace Corps right out of college. I was given the choice of either working in the Philippines or the Dominican Republic, and I chose the latter. It was my first experience out of the US. I discovered that people lived and thought so differently from the people in my world. I wanted to know more about them. After visiting most of the countries in Latin America and getting to know so many people through LASPAU I feel a great deal of respect for Latin Americans.

I think US foreign policy, built on a paternalistic approach, is all wrong. We need a more equitable approach. We should not see Latin America as our back yard, but as our front yard. Look at Venezuela. Supporting a country like that, with so many resources and such fine and varied people should be a great opportunity, but it has been a missed one.

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