Trying to bridge the grade divide

Times Staff Writer

The eight students walked into a room at Lincoln High School prepared to discuss an issue many people, including some of their teachers, considered taboo.

They were blunt. Carlos Garcia, 17, an A student with a knack for math, said, “My friends, most of them say, ‘You’re more Asian than Hispanic.’ ”

“I think Carlos is Asian at heart,” said Julie Loc, 17, causing Carlos to laugh good-naturedly. Asian students who get middling grades often get another response, she said.


“They say, ‘Are you really Asian?’ ” Julie said.

“It’s sad but true,” said Eliseo Garcia, a 17-year-old with long rocker hair, an easy manner and good grades. “I had an Asian friend, but he didn’t necessarily get that great a grades. We used to say, ‘He’s Mexican at heart.’ ”

What accounts for such self-deprecating humor? Or the uneven academic performance that prompts it?

The state’s top education official, Supt. Jack O’Connell, called for that kind of discussion last fall when he decried the “racial achievement gap” separating Asian and non-Latino white students from Latinos and blacks.

At The Times’ request, the Eastside students gathered to talk about this touchy subject.

Lincoln Heights is mostly a working-class Mexican American area, but it’s also a first stop for Asian immigrants, many of them ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam.

With about 2,500 students, Lincoln High draws from parts of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Chinatown.

Both the neighborhood and student body are about 15% Asian. And yet Asians make up 50% of students taking Advanced Placement classes. Staffers can’t remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian.


“A lot of my friends say the achievement gap is directly attributable to the socioeconomic status of students, and that is not completely accurate,” O’Connell said. “It is more than that.”

But what is it? O’Connell called a summit in Sacramento that drew 4,000 educators, policymakers and experts to tackle the issue. Some teachers stomped out in frustration and anger.

No Lincoln students stomped out of their discussion. Neither did any teachers in a similar Lincoln meeting. But the observations were frank, and they clearly made some uncomfortable.


To begin with, the eight students agreed on a few generalities: Latino and Asian students came mostly from poor and working-class families.

According to a study of census data, 84% of the Asian and Latino families in the neighborhoods around Lincoln High have median annual household incomes below $50,000. And yet the Science Bowl team is 90% Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team.

“Look at the statistics. It’s true,” said George De La Paz, 17, whose single mother works as a house cleaner.


Asian parents are more likely to pressure their children to excel academically, the students agreed.

“They only start paying attention if I don’t do well,” said Karen Chu, 15, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam. “They don’t reward me for getting straight A’s. I don’t get anything for that. But if I get a B, they’re like, ‘What’s this?’ ”

If her grades slipped, she said, her parents laid on the guilt extra thick. “My parents are always like, ‘If you don’t do well in school, then it’s all going to be worth nothing,’ ” Karen said, laughing nervously.

Julie Loc, the daughter of a seamstress and a produce-truck driver, said that if she gets a B, her parents ask whether she needs tutoring. She said her father used to compare her to other people’s children, noting their hard course loads or saying, “They have a 4.3 [grade-point average]. Why do you only have a 4.0?’ ”

Julie said her mother, Kin Ho, finally told her father to stop making comparisons. Ho, in an interview, said with a slightly embarrassed smile, “My daughter has embraced American culture, where she expects my reassurance and approval. Our children, if they did something well, they would ask us if we were proud of them, if they did good. They ask if we love them.”

George said his mother, a Mexican immigrant, has high expectations for him too, but she is not so white-knuckled when it comes to school. She wants him to do well -- he’s now thinking of college -- but the field of endeavor is up to him.


“She said, ‘I came here to do better for you,’ ” he said. “But that’s about it. Being happy and getting by, that’s what she wants.”

For Carlos Garcia, the one with the knack for math, the message from his parents was to focus on school. Neither got to finish grade school in their native countries.

His mother, Maribel, from El Salvador, is a homemaker; his father, Santos, a Mexican immigrant, is a drywall finisher who once took Carlos and his older brother to work with him -- to scare them away from manual labor. Two of their children have college degrees, one is still in college and Carlos, the only Latino on Lincoln’s Academic Decathlon team, wants to attend Caltech.

Ericka Saracho, 16, an A student, said her Latino family did not push her to do well in school. When she got a rare B, “they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, Ericka finally got a B! How do you feel about that?’ ” she said. She is one of the few Latina students on Lincoln’s Science Bowl team.

The students talked not just about parental expectations, but also about those of peers. Karen drew laughter when she said of other students, “They expect me to be smart. Even if, like, I do everything wrong on purpose, they still copy off of me -- as if I’m right just because I’m Asian.”

She said expectations came into play in an even odder way in Lincoln High’s hallways.

“In our school we have tardy sweeps, and normally the staff members let the Asians go,” Karen said. “They don’t really care if we’re late.”


The group, nodding, erupted into laughter. “They don’t even ask them for a pass sometimes,” George added.

“Generally speaking -- like it’s stereotypical that Asians all do better -- I also think there’s a stereotypical view that Asians are usually late,” Julie said. “They’ll come to school late, but they’ll get to class and do their work.”

This drew more laughter.


Many factors influence academic performance: class size, poverty, and school and neighborhood resources. But as the discussions at Lincoln show, expectations loom large.

Fidel Nava, a coordinator for English learners at Lincoln, said some Latino students say that Asians get higher grades simply because, well, they’re Asian.

“In a sense, they have come to believe that it’s OK for Asians to be smart and not for Hispanics,” said Nava, who immigrated from Mexico at 14.

Nava, the only one of six siblings to go to college, said he was once like many of his students. His parents wanted the children to finish high school, but there also was an expectation that they get jobs and help the family.


“A lot of my relatives don’t see my job as a stressful job at all,” Nava said. “If I tell them I’m tired, they say, ‘Why? You’re not doing any labor. You’re not doing anything.’ ”

Rocio Chavez, 18, said that even though her older sister graduated from high school, their mother didn’t really expect her to go to college.

“I guess she didn’t expect that from me, either,” Rocio said. “And now that I’m going to move on to college, she’s kind of scared. She gets kind of sad I’m leaving. She’s like, ‘You’re supposed to graduate from high school, go to work and help me out.’ ”

Frank D. Bean, a professor of sociology at UC Irvine’s Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy, has studied the Mexican work ethic and found that work and education occupy the same pedestal, and in some cases, work is even more valued.

Bean said his research shows that children of Latino immigrants, if they drop out of school, are more likely to be working than most other students who leave school.

“In Latino families, being able to work to provide defines your manhood, your worthiness,” said Min Zhou, a UCLA sociology professor who has studied working-class Korean and Chinese communities.


Latino and Asian families in Lincoln Heights were essentially in the same socioeconomic boat, she said, but Asian immigrants were more likely to have been more affluent and had better education opportunities in their native countries.

Of course, there are exceptions to stereotypes at Lincoln. “My mom just wants me to pass,” said Thin Lam, 17.

But Thin said counselors assumed he wanted to take a slew of AP classes, and a counselor urged him to take AP calculus.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I want to take it,’ ” he said. “In the end, I dropped it.”


A few hours after the eight students concluded their discussion, some teachers gathered in Principal James Molina’s office.

“I feel a little bit uncomfortable talking about racial and ethnic generalizations,” said Cynthia High, a 20-year teaching veteran now in charge of teachers’ aides and other programs.

“In some situations, it sparks a good conversation. In others, it’s more taboo-ish to talk about it,” said William Olmedo, who teaches AP physics.


Barbara Paulson, who coordinates Lincoln’s magnet program and teaches AP biology, said it had been understood for a long time that teachers needed to try harder to recruit Latino students for AP classes because “the Asian kids come on in droves.”

Gilbert Martinez, who teaches AP government, said he didn’t think the school did as good a job as it could to raise expectations among Latino students and to get them into AP classes.

“But I do,” Paulson said.

“I’m not saying you, Barbara. I’m saying all over.”

Olmedo said many capable Latino students refused to take AP classes or join other academically rigorous activities.

Teachers said they were saddened by self-defeating attitudes.

“I think the thing I always hear from the Latino kids is, ‘Oh, well, Miss, he’s Asian, she’s Asian. Of course they do well,’ ” said Alli Lauer, who teaches English. “It’s frustrating to hear them do it to each other.”

But as one student said in a separate interview, many Latino students are responding to cues. Johana Najera, 17, said the Academic Decathlon offers a not-so-subtle cue about who belongs.

“We already know that it’s Asian, and they kind of market it more for Asians,” Najera said. She noted that the shirts for the Academic Decathlon team have a logo done in the style of anime, Japanese animation. “It appeals more to Asian students,” she said.


Martinez turned the conversation toward parents’ attitudes, summarizing a discussion from one of his Chicano studies classes.

“Let’s say a Latino student is studying and an Asian student is studying,” Martinez said. “The Latino parent will often say, ‘Hey, come help me out real quick, then you can go back to your studying.’ Where the Asian parent will say, ‘Oh, you’re doing your homework. OK, you finish, and then after you’re done, you come help me.’ ”

High recalled a good Latino student she had a few years ago. He also was a gang member.

“He would wear baggy pants, and he would load up his pants with books,” she said. “He looked around to make sure no one was seeing him so he could look like the baddest kid in the block.”

The teachers were then asked about tardy sweeps, the topic the students had found so amusing. Was it true that Asians could wander outside class without a hall pass?

“My Asian kids laugh at that,” Olmedo said. “I say, ‘Take the pass.’ They say, ‘I’m Asian. Who’s going to ask an Asian student for a pass?’ ”

“Oh, you’re kidding!” High said with a gasp.

“I’ll send one of my [Latino] boys out just to get water, and here comes the security, ‘Please make sure you send him out with a pass,’ and I’ll say I will,” Olmedo continued. “And the Asian kid will walk around the whole campus, the whole day, the whole week, for a whole month!”


Don Brewer, an English teacher, said some Latino students were allowed to slide by without hall passes, including athletes and others involved in school activities.

“But you know,” Brewer said, “when you’re looking down the hall and you see that one kid pop out, you go, ‘OK, he’s Asian. I can go back in.’ You know, I think that happens. It’s obvious it happens.”

High shook her head. “But I must say I don’t feel comfortable with that. And if we’re doing that, that’s not OK. That’s just not OK.”

“Oh, it’s happening,” Olmedo said. “It’s happening.”