Playing Catch-Up With Hispanic Students

Playing Catch-Up With Hispanic Students

Hispanic student achievement is low and their numbers are high. Getting to know them, their challeng

Paul Ruiz, a principal partner at The Education Trust, has his own sad but inspiring story. He comes from a family of 15 whose parents emigrated from Mexico. His teachers in San Antonio, Texas, about 40 years ago did not believe he could learn.

"Of course, I struggled in many ways, in the usual ways--knowing only Spanish--and I went to a school that refused to build on my language to teach me more," he says. "It was the American way to Americanize immigrants."

Spankings, suspensions or ridicule to learn the language were common. "But it didn't work for the Italians [decades ago], and it didn't work for other non-English speaking immigrants."

Two or three teachers, however, did believe in Ruiz and pushed him. He studied until midnight, learning the English language and eventually went to college, St. Mary's University in San Antonio. He went on to receive a master of arts degree and doctorate. He has worked on improving achievement and closing gaps for years and served as administrator and principal in Michigan--selected Educator of the Year by the state Department of Education--and as chief academic officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Ruiz claims he was no smarter than most Hispanic classmates. He was just "more naive" to believe he would make it past ninth grade, which was something that wasn't expected of many Hispanics back then.

It worked.

Ruiz's struggle is supposed to represent the past. It's been decades since the nation as a whole has virtually ignored the culture, the needs, the family values and the language of Hispanic children.

" I went to a school that refused to build on my language and to teach me more. It was the American way to Americanize immigrants." -Paul Ruiz, principal partner, The Education Trust

The nation's latest education law, created under President Bush, is designed to ensure that Ruiz's K-12 education doesn't repeat itself. The No Child Left Behind law tries to ensure that children like Ruiz learn English and have more teachers who believe in them.

Whether Bush is re-elected or not, Hispanic students should be better off. But change comes slowly and Hispanic students are still struggling, even more so than black students in some ways, educators say.

Here are some statistics: About 25 percent to 30 percent of Hispanic students drop out of school, which is higher than white and black drop-out rates. Between 4.5 and 5.5 million students in the U.S. are learning English as a second language. And Hispanics will be the nation's largest minority group, if they are not already, by next year.

Hispanic students are left behind in part because their parents don't know the language, they feel left out of the system, and they don't know the educational and financial opportunities available for their children, such as preparing for higher education, experts say. They often need their children to help work to pay for food and bills.

In his Republican presidential nomination speech in August, Bush singled out one Georgia school among dozens in the nation that is, indeed, changing the plight of Hispanic students. Gainesville Elementary School in Georgia, with a NASA science partnership, is a "90-90-90 school" meaning 90 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch programs, 90 percent are minority, in this case, Hispanic, and 90 percent are passing the state achievement test.

"Part of our culture, when I came here [three years ago] is that I wanted to create a culture of expectations," says Gainesville City School District Superintendent Steven Ballowe. "If the superintendent or the board tells someone what to do, it's a top-down decision. Then, they [teachers] have a reason to fail. They can always blame me. I came in and challenged teachers to create an ideal teaching, learning environment."

Fifty-two percent of the 4,795-student population in the district is Hispanic. And 94 percent of students meet or exceed proficiency in reading and math, Ballowe says.

Parents have a choice among five distinct elementary schools that were created with different themes but stress Georgia Quality Core Curriculum standards, he says.

All elementary students are given a pre-test to reveal what they know and what eludes them. Nine weeks later, they are given a post-test to determine what they learned. The district has data broken down to show student scores in each school and under every teacher. "If teachers are not showing gains [in their students] we have a literacy coach [or peer teacher] work with the teacher," he says. Peers can help teachers change their teaching skills or help teach a learning standard not taught in the class textbook. Maybe teachers are uncomfortable teaching fractions, so the coaches will help them, Ballowe says.

But Ballowe says there is nothing special about teaching Hispanic children. "Hispanic children are helped by good instruction, focused learning environments," he says. "There is no miracle. You don't have to have mariachi bands, and you don't have to have anything special for Hispanic students. You have to have a caring environment with high expectations and long-term relationships with children."

Gaps Still Large

While some strides have been gained among Hispanic and black students over recent years, they still lag behind white classmates across the country.

In Florida, for example, statewide reading results on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test 2004 showed that 42 percent of Hispanics, grades 3 through 10, performed at or above grade level, compared to 35 percent in 2001. Math results show that 49 percent of Hispanic students performed at or above grade level, compared to 39 percent in 2001.

In Washington, where 10 percent of the public school population is Hispanic, 35 percent of the state's white students reached or surpassed proficiency on eighth grade math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, compared to 13 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Latinos. But Latinos are improving by a few percentage points over previous years and more Hispanics are taking Advanced Placement examinations than in past years.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, black and Hispanic students are more likely than whites to be in high-poverty schools. Hispanic students are more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites, but less likely than blacks.

According to Education Commission of the States reports, Hispanic students at the end of high school are roughly on par with white 13-year-olds when it comes to reading and writing skills. And only 14 percent of Hispanic fourth graders scored at proficient or advanced levels on the 2002 NAEP reading test, while less than 10 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders were proficient or advanced on the math test.

Today, more than 10 percent of teachers whose classes have a majority of English language learners are not prepared to meet their language needs, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education, Helping Hispanic Students Reach High Academic Standards.

Raul Gonzalez, education policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, says many states that had a 30-year start with educating large pockets of Hispanic students, such as New York, Florida, Texas and California, do have more qualified ELL teachers and know where to get resources, such as Spanish textbooks for math that could help a Hispanic student earn an A in math as opposed to an F, he says. But those states should be doing "a lot better" than other states in educating them and showing better test scores, Gonzalez says.

Another challenge for Hispanic students is ignorance of the Hispanic culture as family-oriented. If a child is not doing her homework, it could mean she is baby-sitting a younger sibling after school, for example.

To address the problem, a teacher can call the mother and discuss the importance of school while letting the mother know that the teacher understands the importance of the sibling baby-sitting, according to Aymet Chaples, vice president of charter school operations in Florida for ASPIRA Association, a nonprofit national organization devoted to education and leadership development of Puerto Rican and other Latino youths.

Compromise is key, Chaples says. The mother can allow her daughter an hour of time after school to finish her homework and then baby-sit, Chaples says. Or if a child needs summer school but the family needs the child to work in the family store or fields to earn income for the family, an administrator can work out a system where the child can go to summer school during the morning and work with the family in the afternoon, for example, Chaples says.

"Parents are a huge point, they are a breaking point," Chaples says. "Some resilient kids will make it no matter what. But that's not the majority of the kids."

And just feeling accepted is huge, according to Marco Zarate, president of the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals, a nonprofit group. A survey of Hispanic students in North Carolina last year shows that 24 percent saw discrimination against Hispanics in school and most feel they are not part of the school environment.

Top administrators, such as principals, "need to embrace the students" and know the language to make students feel more comfortable, to talk to them if there is a problem, Zarate says. And more teacher colleges and professional development programs need to mandate courses that teach diversity and teach ways to modify instruction to accommodate struggling ELL students, he says.

There is progress among Hispanic students on fourth-grade and eighth-grade test scores, according to Ruiz. But by the time they reach high school, it tends to go downhill. "If there are improvements in the lower grades, why can't they move up in high school? People don't believe. That's the only reason. It's the same student. This belief notion dissipates."

"The 'can't do' attitude won't lead kids through the system," adds Ruiz. "A lot has to do with the belief and expectation and the expertise behind the values. ... It's going to cause some discomfort [to improve] but change can only happen when they get out of their comfort zones."

Colorado, with its tremendous influx of new immigrants, overall has shown little improvement since the state's Closing the Learning Gap Coalition was created three years ago to close the achievement gaps. While Hispanic students are improving on Colorado Student Assessment Program scores, when looking at 1997 to 2001, they still lag far behind whites. And more Hispanic students than ever are failing to graduate from high school, according to a report by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. The percentage of Hispanic students going on to higher education decreased from 1992 to 2004, from 15 percent to 9 percent, says William Moloney, Colorado Commissioner of Education. The biggest problem goes back to not believing minority or poor students can learn. "If you want to make a revolution, it starts with the human heart," he says.

Defying Naysayers

Upon looking closer, some are believers. Entire states and districts as well as some foundations have created after-school programs and coalitions and have encouraged high school/college programs and brought in more bilingual teachers.

Pueblo School District No. 6 in Colorado, which had among the lowest performing schools in the state 10 years ago and now has more Hispanics than any other group, are the most improved, says Ruiz. "[Superintendent] Joyce Bales took the risk even before the enactment of No Child Left Behind," Ruiz says. "We were helping her craft the agenda" because her district didn't have accountability standards.

Now, seven of eight schools in Pueblo that exceeded state average test scores on all 2004 CSAP tests had 50 percent or more students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Hispanic students have also made greater gains compared to other students in 16 of the 23 tests given to date in the proficient and advanced category.

The district, where 65 percent of the students are Hispanic, made a commitment six years ago to ensure all children reached proficiency with the first focus on reading, including mandating that every new teacher undergo professional development in how to teach reading. The district has been given kudos from the White House in part for its Lindamood-Bell model, or multi-sensory approach, to reading, spelling, language comprehension and visual motor skills. Students who struggle with reading are taught to see a word, spell it out, hear it, and announce it--thus, helping children visualize the meaning of words.

"It is a fact that we focus on language and literacy," says Bales. "Our children have to be independent readers in order to be independent learners."

Bales also started a program that had every teacher, no matter what subject, teach vocabulary and writing, and she saw an increase in vocabulary on the CSAP last year.

The district is 84 percent proficient in reading.

Every school has an ESL teacher and teachers are taught how to help students make transitions from Spanish to English using the multi-sensory approach.

"No child should get left behind, and no teacher should be left behind in teacher education programs," Bales says. "We spent a lot of money to teach our teachers how to teach reading."

More educators must believe in children and work hard to help them. Bales adds that achievement gap problems are not so much ethnic-related, but economically related. Do children have enough reading materials and do they have someone pushing them? "They need a hero to believe in them and say to them... 'You can do this. You have the talent,' " Bales says.

In Ogden School District in Utah, where 46 percent of students are Hispanic and 68 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunch, it has a similar system that forces teachers to understand the children's language.

Every teacher in Ogden is required to get ESL endorsement within three years of hire. The endorsement can take about a year and a half to fulfill and is done so at a nearby college. Staff assistants or even custodians--anyone who is a non-licensed employee--can be selected and recommended to undergo the program --"Teacher Assistant Pathway to Teachers"--at Weaver State University. "The ultimate goal is to be a bilingual teacher," says Cathy Ortega, Ogden superintendent. The stress on bilingual teachers appears to be making a dent in graduation rates, she says. Still, "the numbers are too low so we have to get more of them to graduate," she says. "That's our goal."

Hispanic students in urban schools are actually on par with their counterparts in suburban and rural schools according to the 2003 NAEP. For example, black and Hispanic fourth- and eighth graders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Houston and New York City scored close to or above the national average in math and reading tests.

In Georgia, Hispanic students are improving on ACT and SAT scores at a faster rate than their classmates nationally. Specifically, Hispanic students beat the national average on the SAT, increasing their total average SAT score by 8 points. And they posted verbal and math scores well above those of their Hispanic classmates nationwide.

Some improvement may be attributed to the state paying for every student to take the preliminary SAT, or PSAT, which costs about $700,000, and letting some students take it during the school week, which excluded some children who couldn't get to school on Saturdays--the normal testing day, according to Charlotte Robinson, program manager for the AP, SAT and PSAT for the Department of Education. When the PSAT scores are in, every child's test is analyzed and then teachers can help children grasp or master concepts they didn't understand in preparation for the SAT, Robinson says.

" It's a fact that we focus on language and literacy. Our children have to be independent readers in order to be independent learners." -Joyce Bales, Superintendent, Pueblo (Colo.) School District No. 6

Georgia also pushes Hispanic students to take more rigorous courses, including AP courses, Robinson says. More Hispanic students are testing 3 or above, with 5 being the highest mark, than they did years ago, she says.

In Florida, Chaples says the three ASPIRA middle schools have waiting lists. Parents send children to the schools now in part because they fear the public middle schools are too big. They want their children safe, away from potential bullies in other schools, like any other parent. ASPIRA schools in Florida have conflict/resolution programs, demand respect among the students and have intense reading programs.

The schools are also parent friendly. They open the doors to parents to help them learn English, tweak their parenting skills, and/or teach them how to use computers. "If parents don't understand the system, how can they be effective in a system so big?" Chaples asks. So parents are taught to understand that they do have a say in what classes their children take, that they can push for AP calculus, for example, which will help their child get into a competitive college, she says.

Parents also learn the ins and outs of FCAT so they can interpret the results and see where their child needs the most help.

Partnerships with local universities--having college students tutor middle school students and opening college summer courses to middle students--as well as partnerships with museums are also worthy. "We believe the more the kids are exposed to different things the better chance they have of making it," Chaples says. "A lot of kids are not even exposed to other neighborhoods."

ASPIRA South Leadership Charter School in Miami is improving on the state's school accountability report card, improving from an F two years ago to a D a year ago to a C last year.

Deserving a Decent Life

Two approaches definitely don't work with Hispanic students--no accountability and having a "sledgehammer" accountability system, Gonzalez says.

"We need to put the focus back on the kids and see the challenges they have," he says. "One challenge is these kids have strong incentives to leave school and to work to help their family, not because they don't value education but because they value food and shelter like most folks."

National Council of La Raza supports various options including:

Dual enrollment high school or early college high schools. If a student passes the exit exams for all his courses except English and is ready to go to college, the student can take the college courses at college but finish the high school English class. New York City schools already started experimenting with this program.

Giving immigrant students intensive English as Second Language programs but also offering an intensive chemistry or math course after school or over summer school so any student can enroll in the program, which removes the stigma of taking the rigorous ESL class.

It doesn't stop when Hispanic students graduate from high school. American schools must know how to educate every student so he or she can keep up with studies in higher education and find profitable jobs, pay bills and provide for their families, educators agree.

But many Hispanic students are "college maybes." They appear academically ready for college work but face obstacles, such as a lack of help with college applications, lack of knowledge about the process, and lack of financial resources. And parents often don't know how to or when to apply to college, according to a recent study, With Diploma in Hand: Hispanic High School Seniors Talk About Their Future by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

"The urgency is so present we can no longer have high schools that prepare only 25 percent of the kids," Ruiz says. "We're throwing away 75 percent of the students who will end up demanding services, such as food stamps or rent subsidies or prison cells. And these are not the only reasons. They are entitled to raise a family in a decent home."

Will Hispanic students ever not get left behind? Ruiz says, "We'll never find out if we still do things the same old way."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.

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