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Dropout? More like 'pushout,' since we fail our kids, Latino educator Victor Rios says

A drastic event in his teenage years changed Victor Rios' life path. A documentary charts his mission to ensure teens of color can reach their potential.
Image: Victor Rios
Dr. Victor Rios, a former gang member-turned-professor working with young people at Yo! Watts, a Los Angeles youth center.Courtesy of The Pushouts / Latino Public Broadcasting

Growing up in Oakland, California, Victor Rios’ life seemed preordained. His father abandoned the family before he was even born. Rios was in juvenile detention three times by age 15, with three criminal felonies to his name. He stole cars, dropped out of school and joined a gang. To outsiders, he was such a stereotype of a troubled urban youth that he was featured in a 1994 PBS "Frontline" episode about the failures of school integration.

Twenty-five years later, PBS is revisiting Rios, who went on to graduate college, earn a doctorate, and become an acclaimed speaker and educator. Rios, 42, is now a tenured professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

For Rios, it took a drastic event — the murder of his best friend — to change his path. He was able to turn his life around in part because he had one high school teacher, Flora Russ, who encouraged him to return to school. “She believed in me so much,” Rios says in his TED Talk, “that she tricked me into believing in myself.”

His story, along with his mission to help young people transform their lives, is the subject of “The Pushouts,“ a documentary premiering Dec. 20 on PBS.

Rios, who has spent over a decade researching and working with young students of color, explained the documentary’s title.

“When we label a kid a dropout, it puts all the blame on them, ignoring whatever issues the student may have," Rios said. "Pushout is a better term, because it forces schools and educators to think about who they are failing, and what they can do about it.”

Victor Rios (first row, white hat) during his Oakland gang days. He is now a respected professor and author dedicated to helping young people succeed.Courtesy of The Pushouts / Latino Public Broadcasting

Rios' life experience and work have taught him about the inherent dangers of assigning labels. "When educators view students as a ‘good kid” or a ‘bad kid,’ it affects their identity and can lead to self-fulfilling outcomes."

Changing that narrative — from seeing young people of color as potential dropouts to a focus on nurturing students' potential — has become his life's work.

Married with three children, Rios is an expert on the school-to-prison pipeline, educational equity, and restorative justice. He is the author of multiple books, including “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys,” and “Human Targets: Schools, Police, and the Criminalization of Latino Youth.” His 2015 TED Talk, “Help for kids the education system ignores,” has been viewed more than 1.4 million times.

“The Pushouts” incorporates footage of Rios originally shot for "Frontline" in the 1990s, so viewers can see how far he has come. To him, the documentary represents a kind of redemption.

“I can look at the younger me, acting like a dummy and see how ignorant I was,” he said. “But I can also see how, back then, the media was focused on portraying young people of color as gangsters and thugs, while ignoring the complexities in our lives.”

Coincidentally, “The Pushouts” director Katie Galloway attended the same high school as Rios, although not at the same time. “It is very important for people to see the humanity in the young people featured in the film,” she said.

Galloway hopes that audiences will see “The Pushouts” as a counternarrative to typical portrayals of young people of color. “Gangs are not a lifestyle choice; people do not grow up wanting to be an outlaw. This is what happens when people are cut out of the system and out of society.”

“I think he (Rios) is amazing,” Russ said. “He is just one example of many, many youth who have risen above their circumstances. And it is amazing, not that just that he has earned his degrees, but that he is having an impact and inspiring other people with his lectures.”

However, Rios and other experts stress that not all young people have the opportunity to benefit from mentors and available school resources. While the Pew Center reports that the Hispanic high school dropout rate fell to 10 percent in 2016, many young Latinos still face obstacles as they navigate the educational system.

“I wish I could say that things were great for a young person of color, but they are not,” said Martin Flores, who as a university student was also a mentor to Rios.

Risk lies in circumstances — not the child

Low-income and working-class neighborhoods often suffer from a lack of employment opportunities and from racial profiling by law enforcement. Young people, in particular, are vulnerable to drug abuse, depression, food insecurity, and homelessness. Such issues can lead students to leave school, and increase the likelihood that they will be swept up into the criminal justice system. For some Latinos, having a family member with immigration issues can be a further source of instability.

It is important to specify that it is the circumstances of the young person that places them at risk, rather than labeling a student “at-risk,” according toPedro Noguera, professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The risk lies in the circumstances the child lives in, not in the child," said Noguera. "That is what we have to focus on. That means increasing support for community programs and opportunity – which is actually a lot more cost-effective than trying to change a person we think is broken.”

“Mentorship is important,” said Flores, pointing out that successful mentors do not necessarily have to be in a person’s life for an extended period. “But while they are there, they can impact lives in a significant way.”

Noguera said there are reasons to be optimistic about how schools are serving their diverse populations. “The L.A. Unified School District just announced that they are opening health centers on some campuses,” he said. Around the country, he sees districts doing important work for young people who have been placed at risk because of the circumstances in their communities.

Rios, reflecting on his journey, hopes that viewers of “The Pushouts” will see all young people, including the presumed “troublemakers,” as carrying promise and potential.

“The more positive adults young people have in their lives,” he said, “the more chances they have to improve their lives.”

“The Pushouts” has been praised for its positive depiction of Latinos. Galloway is especially proud that it won the 2018 Imagen Award for Best Documentary, beating “Dolores,” about labor icon Dolores Huerta. “That meant a lot to me, as it came from the Latino community.”

Rios has told his former mentor, Russ, that her support saved his life.

“She told me that she was just doing her job," Rios said. "And I said she was proving my point — a great educator thinks that this is part of her job.”