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Career Women Inspire Girls to Stay in School

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They have given up Coke and chips for water and apples. They devour 400-page novels and visit the library regularly. And they are learning to stand tall.

About two dozen girls at Santa Monica High School have been picking up health and beauty tips, along with the success stories of professional women in a volunteer project that began in February.

The goal is to get the girls interested, animated and inspired to read and to stay in school, said project director Susan Bell. She said students can be “at risk” for dropping out for any number of reasons: “you’re bored, you need money, your family life is not too good.”

“I’m trying to make them see their goals are reachable. It’s one step at a time.” In weekly lunchtime sessions, the project provides encouragement, instruction and “accessible role models, women who made it” to help the girls take the first steps.

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The girls, mostly Latinas, hope to buck statistics, family history and stereotypes.

A national study issued this year by U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos found that the average reading level of pupils tested was below “adept.” The Department of Education defines adept as “the ability to read and comprehend a wide variety of text material.” Only 46% of Anglo 17-year-olds, and fewer than a quarter of Latino 17-year-olds, scored high enough to be classified as adept readers.

One in eight Latino high school students in California dropped out in the 1987-88 school year. Nationwide in 1988, 55% of Latinos from age 18 to 24 had graduated from high school, compared to 82% of Anglos in that age range and 81% overall, according to the American Council on Education. Only 47% of Latino high school graduates went on to college, compared to almost 59% for Anglo students.

Latino students with the best of intentions and the highest aspirations face serious obstacles, including financial problems and the shortage of positive role models to turn to for inspiration, the girls said.

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Judith Sernas, 14, said she knows of many students whose schoolwork is hampered or who have to drop out because they have to work to help support their families.

Others look to the statistics and see little reason to stay in school. Marcela Avila, a ninth-grader, said she sometimes wonders whether it’s worth it, “waking up at 6:30 in the morning and having homework,” when “after high school, I might end up married and pregnant.”

The girls’ parents--secretaries, maids, factory workers--urge their children to do better than they have but are not able to offer themselves as role models. Sernas said her father, who only got to the sixth grade in Mexico, is “always telling (me) to be somebody,” while her housekeeper-mother instructs, “ ‘I don’t want you to clean for a living. I want you to be proud of your achievements.’ ”

The girls said stereotypes also stand in their way. “Teachers put you down: ‘You’re Mexican, you’re in gangs, you’re a cholo ,’ ” Avila said. Too often told that “you’re going to end up pregnant, with a low-paying job,” it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, she said.

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Santa Monica High School has had programs geared to its 25% Latino student body, including a Latin American history course this semester with sections on study skills and careers. An upperclassmen-mentor program was offered last year.

The Santa Monica project, financed with a $39,300 grant under the federal Women’s Educational Equity Act, offers a similar message of support and empowerment but with low-key delivery. Bell is paid with money from the grant.

“You have to start with young girls and get them interested in careers,” said Alicia Coro, who helps administer grant-funded programs as the director of school improvement programs in the U.S. Department of Education’s office of elementary and secondary education.

Under the 1974 Women’s Educational Equity Act, about 30 pilot projects are funded each year to develop educational opportunities for women and girls and to counter sex-role stereotypes in curriculum. Some of the projects, selected as models, are described in manuals and videos that are passed on to teachers, community organizations and women’s groups across the nation, Coro said.

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“There is a definite need for improving the participation of girls . . . and minority people . . . in math and science,” and promoting reading, Coro said. “Good readers go on to bigger and better things.”


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