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Obama focuses on Hispanic education

From NBC's Athena Jones
At a town hall meant to highlight the importance of increasing educational achievement in the Hispanic community, President Obama talked about the need to invest in early education programs, improve teacher quality, increase parental involvement and fund bilingual and immersion programs for students who have trouble speaking English.

He also reiterated his support for the DREAM Act for young immigrants and for Pell Grants and loan-reduction programs to help make college more affordable.

The White House dubbed March "Education Month" and the president has traveled to several states -- including Florida and Massachusetts -- making the case at each event that the country must invest in improving schools and boosting high-school and college-graduation rates in order for America to better compete in the global economy. As he has at nearly every stop, Obama told the audience at Washington's Bell Multicultural High School on Monday that America "can't afford" to have students drop out of school. 

"This is an issue that's not just important for the Latino community here in the United States; this is an issue that is critical for the success of America generally," the president said. "If our young people are not getting the kind of education they need, we won't succeed as a nation."

Obama's trip to Latin America, his interview with CNN's Spanish-language channel, and today's education event -- which will air on Univision tonight -- come as new Census figures show big gains for the nation's largest and fastest growing minority group. Hispanics, who have heavily favored Democrats in recent elections -- could prove key in 2012. They accounted for more than half of the U.S. population increase over the last decade, with much of that growth in Southern states, like North Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama -- and roughly one-in-four children in the U.S. is Hispanic.

The president spent an hour Monday taking questions submitted through a Univision website and from an audience of some 600 students, teachers and parents on everything from immigration reform and ways to stop bullying. After the event, bilingual staff from the Federal Student Aid Office held a Spanish session with the parents to talk about preparing their children for college and paying for it.

In a conference call previewing the event, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there were nearly 12 million Latino students in public elementary and secondary school system, making up more than one-in-five -- or 22% -- of all pre-K to 12th-grade students. Fewer than half of Latino children are enrolled in an early-learning programs and only about half earn their high-school diploma on time, Duncan said.

"Both President Obama and I believe that reducing dropout rates and boosting student achievement among Hispanic students is absolutely essential to the future of our economy and the future of our country," Duncan told reporters on the call.

Only one-in-eight -- about 13% of Latinos -- have a bachelor's degree, according to Duncan and just 4% have anything beyond an undergraduate degree, said Juan Sepulveda, Director of White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, which works with groups across the country to try to improve educational outcomes among Hispanics.

Duncan and Sepulveda also attended Monday's event, along with DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.