By Louis Mayeux

Ricardo Morales dreams of an engineering career. Jonathan Angel wants to be a forensic scientist. Francisco Moreno seeks to attend Harvard.

The three were among eight Latino students from North Atlanta High School who participated Nov. 13 in a “community conversation” as part of a White House initiative on improving education for Latinos.

Juan Sepúlveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, conducted the forums at the Latin American Association on Buford Highway. More than 150 community leaders, educators and students participated.

In moderating the event, Sepúlveda said that problems of Latinos include a high dropout rate, low college graduation rates, financial difficulties, the Spanish-English language barrier and cultural conflicts.

Morales and Angel volunteered to participate in a panel discussion in the morning session. They were told to make believe that President Barack Obama was present.

In a followup session at North Atlanta, Morales said that his statement during the panel discussion was that he wanted people “to stop all of the name calling and labeling us immigrants when they don’t know us. Just because we’re Hispanics doesn’t mean that we can’t succeed.”

North Atlanta English teacher Dr. Tara A. Abydos-Harri, who took the students to the White House forum, said during the followup at North Atlanta that the discussions helped to debunk the myth that all Latino students are immigrants. Of the eight North Atlanta students, four were born in the U.S. and four in Mexico.

The Atlanta event was the 40th held nationwide, with Georgia the 18th state. The University of Georgia Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education co-sponsored the forum. Information gathered by Sepúlveda will be used for a presidential executive order to govern the White House education initiative. Also attending from North Atlanta were Jose Renderos, Medardo Soriano, Omar Martinez, Carlos Mendoza and Jose Valentin

Renderos said that another problem is “the bad influence in our neighborhoods from gangs.” Renderos said that Latinos who work at minimum wage jobs see gang members making higher amounts of money in illicit activities such as drugs. He said that this tempts many to drop out of school and join gangs.

Morales said that another need is to “give English lessons to parents so that they can get more involved and motivate students.”

Another problem cited by Abydos-Harris and the students is transportation. Morales and Angel were unable to attend a Saturday session at the Westminster Schools for Latino students interested in engineering and science because they couldn’t get rides, she said.

The eight students, all of whom have a C-average and above, will be able to attend a two-week enrichment initiative at UGA next summer, all expenses paid, if they can get transportation, Abydos-Harris, a UGA graduate, said..

The White House initiative is part of a broad effort to improve education for Hispanics. The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM ACT) would allow immigrants who graduate from high school to establish conditional permanent residency.

Angel said that he felt uplifted by the White House community forum. “We’re going to have friends in the White House for immigrant students who want to graduate and go to college,” he said. “I felt encouraged after that session, that there’s somebody who can help Hispanics if they want to graduate and reach their goals and dreams.”

Sepúlveda cited several issues affecting the Hispanic community: only 49 percent of Latinos are in early childhood education, while other groups are at 60 percent or higher; only half of Latino high school graduates are ready for college and need remedial classes; and only 11 to 13 percent receive undergraduate degrees.

He said that the small number of Latinos receiving college degrees plays a major role in the United States dropping to 10th in the world in the number of students receiving degrees.