UMKC researchers take first comprehensive look at area Hispanic population since 1988: Education likely to still be seen as No. 1 priority

Nathan Zoschke

A new survey aims to identify the changing needs of Kansas City’s burgeoning Hispanic community in areas such as health care, education and employment.

The 2012 Hispanic Needs Assessment (HNA) is the first comprehensive survey of the nine-county Kansas City metropolitan area’s Hispanic population since 1988.

“There was a lot written about how the ’80s were going to be the decade of the Hispanics,” said John Fierro, President/CEO of the Mattie Rhodes Center. “Kansas City did not have a huge population like L.A., Chicago or New York. We needed something to substantiate that this population exists.”

Since the ’80s, Kansas City’s metropolitan Hispanic population has more than tripled—from 45,000 in 1990 to 166,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. As a whole, the metro grew from 1.6 to 2 million during those two decades.

“Twenty-five years ago, when you thought of the Hispanic population, two neighborhoods popped out: the Westside in KCMO and Argentine area in KCK,” Fierro said. “Today, you have over 10,000 Hispanics living in the Historic Northeast, which is three times the Hispanic population of the Westside. You have Hispanic populations in Olathe, Lenexa and North of the River. We’re truly spread out.”

The current needs assessment is being conducted by UMKC’s Institute for Human Development (IHD) and the Latino Civic Engagement Collaboration (LCEC), which represents six local non-profit organizations that work with the Latino community.

Fierro, who convenes the LCEC, said the collaborative was created four years ago for fundraising purposes and information sharing.

Data from the needs assessment will be used by these programs to obtain grant money and tailor services to the growing local Hispanic community’s changing needs.

Education is a pivotal issue for Hispanics, who tend to be younger, as a demographic, than other ethnicities.

Hispanics represent approximately 17 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 25 percent of K-12 public school enrollment and 20 percent of those ages 18-24, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

However, the 2010 U.S. Census found that only 63 percent of Hispanics 25 years of age or older are high school graduates, and only 14 percent have a college degree—the lowest of any race or ethnicity.

The 1988 HNA survey found that “low educational attainment and high dropout rates are seen as the most important problems and education the most critical unmet need for Kansas City area Hispanics.”

It also found that “many see education as a key determinant of future success.”

Immigration, language barriers and poverty are largely to blame, experts say.

Today, about 40 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population is foreign-born—including 53 percent of Hispanic adults.

Once bilingual students leave English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, they are often on their own.

“Parents may not have that skill set [to help kids with homework], and that frustration is visible,” Fierro said. “Educators assume that the kids don’t want to learn, but they don’t understand the underlying issues that create that type of behavior.”

Fierro speaks from personal experience.

“I remember being in high school and struggling with algebra,” Fierro said. “My mom always spoke Spanish, and my dad was bilingual but had less than a ninth grade education. They couldn’t offer me any help with my homework.”

Working-class Hispanic immigrants also tend to live in urban school districts, which consistently underperform their suburban peers.

Fierro graduated from high school in the Kansas City, Missouri School District and was unprepared for the rigors of college at UMKC.

“Our [high school] social studies teacher was a football coach,” Fierro said. “The minute someone asked a question about the football team, that was the entire class. When I went to UMKC as a freshman and a professor told me that we would write three-four papers in a semester, that was a culture shock.”

Fierro dropped out of UMKC, but went on to receive a bachelors and MPA from Park University and an MBA from Rockhurst University.

Dr. Miguel Carranza directs the Latina/Latino Studies Program at UMKC, which aims to increase the school’s Hispanic enrollment and graduation rates.

Carranza said feedback from the 2012 HNA will benefit his program.

“Right now, I’ve been involved in developing the academic component, but we also need a research component,” he said. “The basic need to know about Latinos in the community is very present in Kansas City because it is hard to do research and surveys.”

That’s why the collaboration between the IHD and LCEC is important, Fierro said.

The 1988 HNA was a simple survey, but the 2012 HNA will include additional survey tools focused on high school students and community leaders.

Fierro said more than 900 survey responses have been received so far. The IHD hopes to collect a sample of at least 2,000.

The survey can be taken online at

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