College Prep Passes Over Some Latino Students

There is growing evidence that many incoming college students are not prepared for the rigors of higher education. A study released this week by the Education Trust-West shows that Latino and black students in California may be faring even worse than their white counterparts.

The study, which looked at five districts in California, found that five in 10 high school graduates were not prepared for college. Among Latino students, the numbers were even more grim. Less than a quarter of Latino high school graduates had completed the courses needed to apply to a four-year public university in the state, the report found. Among the Latino students who took the college-prep courses, only21 to 35 percent passed the classes–compared to 20 to 63 percent of white students.

Latino, black and low-income students are “tracked” more often into less rigorous classes or vocational education, while white and Asian students are more often placed into college-prep courses. Since students who begin in lower tracks rarely move up, that represents a major barrier, the report concluded.

Although the study focused on California students, the issue of college-readiness is a national one. Are the Latino students in your area represented in college prep, honors classes and Advanced Placement or are they being tracked into non-college prep courses? Is anything being done to address inequities?

Educare Comes to the Suburbs

In April, construction started on a new Educare center in West Chicago, a suburb in Illinois’ DuPage County, about 30 miles west of the Windy City.  Educare is nationally recognized for providing high-quality early care and instruction for children from birth to age five. Educare of West DuPage, as the new center is known, is their first site in a suburban location. Its founders say this decision was meant to highlight the fact that 40 percent of children who live in poverty in the United States reside in the suburbs. The new Educare is near West Chicago’s Pioneer Elementary school, which has the highest percentage of children in poverty of any school in the county.

This development is also of interest to those of us who follow Latino early education. West Chicago, like much of the rest of the Chicago metro area, has seen large increases in its Latino population over the past two decades. (Though this report only covers the period from 1990 to 2000, you get the idea.) The town’s website shows 2007 demographics broken into two local markets; both areas are heavily Hispanic, one is majority-Hispanic.  The local elementary district has developed a dual-language immersion program which was highlighted at last November’s conference in Chicago on New Journalism for Latino Children and which I mentioned in Early Years. The new Educare will also use a dual-language format to help children prepare for the elementary school program. How’s that for birth-to-third-grade planning?

Local reporting (Daily Herald)  highlighted the fact that West Chicago’s school district has supported the effort by donating land for the construction and promising continuing maintenance support, even though the district’s own pre-K program is facing steep cuts. The online comments attached to the Herald article are perhaps even more interesting. Among a flurry of comments questioning the expense of the Educare facility, one of which alleged the center would serve only illegal immigrants, a local school board member posted his phone number and e-mail and announced he would take questions personally! At the end of the thread, a couple of posters supported the project, which is largely privately funded, as a boon to the neighborhood.

I look forward to learning more about the program once the center opens–currently anticipated for spring 2012.

Deportation Affects Education of U.S.-born Children

Much has been written about the plight of the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. In recent years, stepped-up deportation has divided thousands of families or forced parents to yank their children from the only country they’ve known. Many of the stories I’ve read look at the effects on the adults and the family as a whole.

But this piece by Perla Trevizo in the Chattanooga Times Free Press takes a different approach: It examines how the relocation of families from Chattanooga back to their native Guatemala is affecting their children’s education.

It’s a side of the issue that many people overlook, but one that will likely affect this country significantly because many of the U.S.-born children (who are American citizens) plan to return to this country eventually. Will they return with less education, less preparation, and fewer skills than they would have if their families had stayed here?

As Trevizo writes:

“These U.S.-born children face the same hard futures as other Guatemalan children, especially those living in rural areas, where only 35 percent of them will have access to and finish middle school; only 20 percent will have access to high school and less than 1 percent will go on to college.

Totonicapán, the state where Jennifer’s village sits, has a lower level of human development than Cambodia, according to the United Nations.”

The article is a good example of how to humanize an issue that often is merely presented in statistics or quotes from experts and advocates.

Here are some tips to take away from the piece and use in your own reporting:

Think cinematically: A gripping film often starts off with a close-up of the hero, or a scene zooming in on a character doing something that sums up their lives, then it zooms out to a greater expanse or to the larger story.

Trevizo begins her story with an image of a young girl named Jennifer at lunchtime in a poor school in a Guatemalan village, then tells us that “Jennifer is one of untold numbers of children in the crosshairs of a vitriolic immigration debate: children born and raised in America—and thereby U.S. citizens by law—but forced to move to other countries when their parents are deported or pressured to leave.”

Use details to drive the story: Look for details that back up your reporting and research and make those facts and figures human. Statistics about poverty levels in Guatemala tell us that it is a poor country, but this description tells readers how that poverty affects the children: “A year later, she’s thinner than when she first arrived. The lack of lotion and the ever-present, coating dust from unpaved roads has parched the skin on her feet and hands, especially rough around the knuckles and nails. Her long brown hair, which she wears back with a plastic clip, looks dry. There’s no money to buy shampoo or hair conditioner.”

Pick your subjects carefully: Instead of trying to find people whose lives you can fit into a story about a larger issue, look for the larger issue in the stories of the people on your beat. In this case, the families profiled by Trevizo illustrate a situation confronting thousands of deported immigrants and their children. Their individual stories would be interesting, but the fact that they speak to a bigger problem makes the piece more powerful.

How Does Your State Count Multiracial Students?

The state of Texas has a tendency to do things its own way when it comes to education.

It is one of only a handful of states that have not adopted the Common Core State Standards. The Lone Star state’s textbook adoption process routinely grabs headlines. Now, according to this story in the Houston Chronicle, Texas has decided not to count the standardized test scores of multiracial students in the state’s accountability ratings.

Texas will continue to count only white, black and Hispanic students. That goes against the trend in many other states that now include several categories for racial and ethnic groups, including one for multiracial students.

Racial and ethnic categories are important not only to students’ sense of identity, but also to the researchers and educators who depend on accurate data on high-stakes tests to determine campus rankings and bonus pay, among other decisions. Schools can face sanctions as serious as being closed based on the performance of students in one ethnic subgroup.

As the story points out, the categories are used to produce test data that determine campus rankings and pay, and are often used by researchers. Poor performance among one group can even result in campus closures.

What is your state doing? And how will it affect accountability ratings? Does your state allow Latino students to mark themselves as multiracial? (Texas does not).

Most importantly, how accurate is the data?

That question alone could be the basis for a long-term investigative piece.  As a teacher (with the nose of a journalist), I remember looking at the records for my students and finding that all my Latino students had been tagged as Alaskan-Pacific Islander. It immediately raised all sorts of questions for me about how their test scores were being categorized and what role that played in the school’s rating.

It turned out to be a computer glitch that was corrected before testing, and all the students were correctly identified on state tests. But what if the same thing is happening in other schools – by error or by design? It’s worth looking into.

Comic Books for English Language Learners

As an admitted fan girl who dreams of attending the San Diego Comic-Com, this story about a panel featuring students from Imperial County, California caught my attention. For the last three years, school district students have been working with the Comic Book Project to create comic books as part of a program to develop literacy and English language skills.

“(The panel will illustrate how) students throughout the United States have created comic books in their classrooms and how it’s showing growth in student development in English as a Second Language,” said a curriculum director involved with the project.

The idea of using comic books as a way to help English Language Learners got me wondering about what other school districts are doing. Many years back, I wrote a narrative piece about a Philadelphia teacher who had her students write and produce a telenovela. The story  offered a great way to go beyond statistics and tell the stories of students in that school’s ELL program.

Are your school districts trying new or innovative programs to reach ELL or immigrant students? Comic books? Creative writing programs? Telenovelas? If you find something interesting and write about it, let us know.

Chicago’s Latino Kids Often Get Only Half-Day Kindergarten

In June, the watchdog publication Catalyst Chicago published an In Depth report showing that Chicago lags behind other large urban districts in providing full-day kindergarten. (Full disclosure: I used to write for them.) While New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco routinely provide full-day kindergarten to all their students, Chicago does not. The recent official data on kindergarten programs in the Windy City is inaccurate, saying that all kids get full-day kindergarten when a minimal amount of reporting finds that they don’t. The state data from fall 2007, however, does show that Latino students were more than three times as likely as African-American students to be in half-day kindergarten programs.

Chicago schools with high numbers of English Language Learners were also more likely to have half-day programs (Not surprisingly,  many young Latino students here are ELLs). The Catalyst article cites recent research on Los Angeles ELLs showing that those who  attended full-day kindergarten were much less likely to have been held back by second grade than those who attended half-day programs.

The issue here in Chicago is population distribution. Latino neighborhoods are bursting with kids and schools are overcrowded; meanwhile, schools in African-American neighborhoods are being closed because of low enrollment. Preschool programs are in high demand in Latino neighborhoods, which also crunches kindergarten programs there. In an effort to meet the demand, some schools serving Latinos (notably on Chicago’s northwest side) run three shifts of preschool: morning, afternoon and late afternoon. But these programs use kindergarten classrooms, making it difficult to lengthen the kindergarten day.

The article also notes that kindergarten attendance in Chicago is weak and suggests the prevalence of half-day kindergarten might be a factor. If a working parent can’t arrange for dropoff and pickup within the short day, the child is likely to stay at home with a caregiver and miss school. Even children who enter kindergarten well-prepared can backslide academically if they miss substantial amounts of school.

What is the state of kindergarten in your district? Has it been affected by budget cuts? Which kids have access to full-day programs, and are they reaching the kids who need them the most, Latino and otherwise?

Research Examines How Latino Students Are Disciplined

A study tracking the disciplinary records of nearly a million Texas students exposed some startling findings:

Nearly 60 percent of the students were suspended or expelled at least once during middle school or high school. About 31 percent of the students received an out-of-school suspension.

About 15 percent were suspended or expelled 11 times or more. About half of those students ended up in the juvenile justice system.

Students disciplined 11 times or more showed lower graduation rates, with only 40 percent graduating from high school during the study period. About one-third of students disciplined one or more times repeated grades.

Minority students faced harsher disciplinary measures than white students and were more often given out-of-school suspensions or placed in alternative classrooms, according to the study.

The report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center is unprecedented in its scope, following students over a six year period from 7th to 12th grade. Its findings put a harsh focus on the effectiveness of school discipline policies as well as the racial disparities found in the system.

While media coverage in The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Post examined the shortcomings of trying to manage student behavior through discipline, the sheer numbers of students disciplined, or the fact that African-American students were more likely to be disciplined, it is also worthwhile to look at the findings for Latino students.

Like African-American students, Latinos faced higher rates of disciplinary measures than white students. About 74 percent of Latino male students had at least one disciplinary violation, compared to 59 percent of white male students. Among female students, about 58 percent of Latinas had a disciplinary violation, compared to 37 percent of their white counterparts.

About 18 percent of Hispanic students were given out-of-school suspensions for their first disciplinary violation, almost twice the rate of white students.

In addition, about one in five Latino students were charged with repeated conduct violations, compared to one in 10 white students.

Do your districts’ discipline records reveal similar trends? Are Latino and other minority students being disciplined more often or facing harsher punishment than white students?

If you haven’t requested discipline records from the schools you cover, it might be a good time to do so–even if that means filing a FOIA request. Find out if advocacy groups in your area are tracking this issue: They already might have done some groundwork. If your district will let you, try to visit an in-school suspension classroom or alternative classroom setting. How does the curriculum in those classrooms compare to regular classes? It could give you insight into why these students fall so far behind.


Weighing Budget Cuts Against Latino Childhood Obesity

How might school funding cuts affect efforts to fight the obesity epidemic among Latino children?

That question was the focus of the Latino Childhood Obesity Education Summit, held last week in San Antonio. As reported here in the San Antonio Express News, experts worry that an expected $4 billion in state funding cuts could hurt the ability of Texas school districts to continue programs intended to fight obesity.

Such fitness campaigns often operate with limited or short-term funding, which is especially precarious in these economic times, the article notes.

Although last week’s summit addressed problems in Texas, the obesity epidemic and other food-related issues, such as hunger and food insecurity, affect Latino children and school districts across the country.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Leadership for Healthy Communities, Latino children face greater risks of developing diabetes than non-Hispanic children. Some studies also suggest that childhood obesity and lack of physical activity can adversely affect kids’ achievement in school and lower their self-esteem.

As the CDC notes here:  “Health-related factors such as hunger, physical and emotional abuse, and chronic illness can lead to poor school performance. Health-risk behaviors such as …  physical inactivity are consistently linked to academic failure and often affect students’ school attendance, grades, test scores, and ability to pay attention in class.

Look at proposed funding cuts in your state. Do they target obesity awareness or exercise campaigns? Are there at-risk programs in the districts in your region? What are these programs doing to battle obesity among Latino students? Are they in danger of being slashed? Who are the families who would be affected?

Seek out parents and children and talk to them about the difficulty of finding healthy, affordable food and how their diets affect school performance. Try to visit the school cafeterias or spend time in one of the programs offered by schools.

A good place to start your research is the Nutrition in Communities and Schools: What’s at Stake for Latino Children  webinar offered by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) on Tuesday, July 19. MALDEF, which also sponsored the San Antonio summit, plans to produce a 10-page white paper from that event.

How Will States Support Latino Preschoolers Through Race to the Top?

This week, my story on what states are likely to do to win Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants was published by Education Week. The story gives a good national overview of the kinds of things states will be encouraged to do to win the money: build data systems, create quality ratings for daycare centers and other early learning programs, and so forth. One of the explicit goals of the competition is for states to reach out and ensure that as many at-risk young children receive high-quality care and learning as possible. But what will states have to do to get to them? My story couldn’t address this, but there is research out there that gives us some ideas.

A recent Urban Institute report on childcare decisions by low-income families shows that their preferences in daycare service often are pushed aside by other considerations such as affordability and proximity to home or work. (I know from personal experience it isn’t just low-wage parents who face those tradeoffs, either.) The report also takes a special look at barriers immigrants and non-native English speakers face in learning about childcare options in two cities: Providence, R.I., and Seattle, Wash. In both cities, Latino families made up large proportions of the families studied and were part of both the immigrant and non-immigrant subsets. It’s a long report and not well-distilled, so watch for my upcoming Q & A with the researchers to get you the gist.

In the meantime, one approach I’ve seen that successfully reaches Latino families is visiting them at home to provide them with information about the development of young children, services like those offered by the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Gads Hill. Because Latino families are generally less likely than those of other ethnicities to use center-based childcare, home visiting can be a crucial tool to pass along tips for moms and other caregivers to help their children grow and learn. It’s also a valuable support for isolated caregivers at home with young children all day.

Do Simplified Texts Help English Language Learners?

I came across a very interesting debate regarding texts used for English Language Learners on this Education Week blog.

Apparently, MacMillan has published a simplified version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (The original is required reading in most high school English classes, usually at the junior level.) The new intermediate reader edition is about half the length of the original and written in much simpler prose.

The book’s release did not sit well with film critic Roger Ebert, who dashed off a blog post damning the new version as a “Gatsby without Great.”

“There is no purpose in ‘reading’ The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told,” wrote Ebert.Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process.”

Even after being told that the new version is designed for students still trying to master English, Ebert responds: “For a learner of English, what’s the point? Begin with young adult novels, things like that. Why eviscerate Fitzgerald?”

The debate led me to wonder about the curriculum for students learning English and the texts used to teach reading and literature — especially for students at the intermediate or advanced levels who have a firmer grasp of academic English. As an English teacher, I was often asked by my ELL colleague about the texts my classes were reading–not to teach the same work, but so she could see if a simplified version was available.

It could be worthwhile to check with local schools, ELL programs and your state department of education to find out what texts are used in your districts and what ELL teachers and experts say about the use of any simplified texts. Do the simpler versions help students develop English skills or do they rob English Language Learners of the chance to experience fully great literature? If the simpler texts are used, how do teachers incorporate larger themes and analysis?

Even just the list of books used could lead to a good story. Are the materials reflective of the communities served? Is a wide spectrum of Latino authors represented, or do teachers fall back on a mostly European canon?

Another good resource may be teacher web pages, which most schools now require. Most teachers post syllabi, assignments and reading lists online, which can provide a good overview of the curriculum.