Growing Latino Population Affects Other Students

What happens when the student population of a school shifts? What happens when the number of Latino students starts to pass the number of African-American students in a school that was once predominantly black?

According to this controversial new report, a “toxic relationship” develops between Latino kids, who may lapse in Spanish, and African-American kids, who may feel alienated and lonely. The study of black fifth-graders in the Irving Independent School District, located just outside Dallas, raised eyebrows with its use of emotionally-charged language, which includes the phrase “race war” to describe the situation.

In this Dallas Morning News column, editorial writer Gabriel Escobar examines the controversy regarding the author’s language and contention that school tensions are a result of “Brown trumping Black.” About 12 percent of Irving students are black and 71 percent are Latino.

However, as Escobar points out, the meat of the study lies less in the author’s conclusions and more in the voices of the black students, who expressed a sense of isolation and rejection.

“I don’t speak Spanish, so a lot of times when the Mexicans speak Spanish, I have a hard time trying to fit in with them,” one student is noted as saying.

The report also notes this exchange:  “In a very derisive tone, one of the African American female students exclaimed,“Mexicans are everywhere!” Another African American student followed with “And we don’t get along with them!”

This report may be flawed, but it illustrates a side of the Latino education story that can often go overlooked.  As the Latino school-age population grows, how do the demographic changes affect non-Latino students? And what are schools doing to mitigate the negative effects on all students?

Take a look at the demographics in the district you cover. What trends do you see emerging? Is the student population shifting one way or the other? If so, talk to school officials, parents group and, most of all, to students about the impact on classrooms, curriculum, social interaction, and teacher staffing.

Is there a sense of isolation among the groups whose numbers are falling?

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New Study: Bilingual Babies’ Speech Perceptions Stay Flexible Longer

New research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences shows that bilingual babies stay open to different speech sounds for a longer period than monolingual babies and that the relative amount of each language babies are exposed to affects their vocabulary as toddlers. Not surprisingly, in a sample of English/Spanish bilingual babies, the more of one language they heard, the more of that language they spoke at 15 months.

In previous studies, the researchers have found that between eight and 10 months of age, monolingual babies become more able to distinguish the speech sounds of their native language. At the same time, their ability to distinguish foreign speech sounds declines. For instance, English-speaking babies become better able to distinguish “r” from “l” sounds at this age, while Japanese-speaking peers (who don’t hear those sounds as often) lose the ability to differentiate them.

In the current study, babies from monolingual (English or Spanish) and bilingual (English and Spanish) households wore caps fitted with electrodes to measure brain activity with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, a device that records the flow of energy in the brain. Babies heard background speech sounds in one language, then occasionally a contrasting sound in the other language.

For example, a sound that is used in both Spanish and English served as the background sound and then a Spanish “da” and an English “ta” each randomly occurred 10 percent of the time as contrasting sounds. If the brain can detect the contrasting sound, there is a signature pattern called the mismatch response that can be detected with the EEG.

Monolingual babies at 6-9 months of age showed the mismatch response for both the Spanish and English contrasting sounds, indicating that they noticed the change in both languages. But at 10-12 months of age, monolingual babies only responded to the English contrasting sound.

Bilingual babies showed a different pattern. At 6-9 months, bilinguals did not show the mismatch response, but at 10-12 months they showed the mismatch for both sounds.

This difference in development suggests that the bilingual babies “may have a different timetable for neurally committing to a language” compared with monolingual babies, said Adrian Garcia-Sierra, lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

The researchers followed up when the babies were about 15 months old to see how many Spanish and English words the children knew. They found that early brain responses to language could predict infants’ word-learning ability. That is, the size of the bilingual children’s vocabulary was associated with the strength of their brain responses in discriminating languages at 10-12 months of age.

Early exposure to language also made a difference: Bilingual babies exposed to more English at home, including from their parents, other relatives and family friends, subsequently produced more words in English. The pattern held true for Spanish. (On a personal note, I’ve observed the same effect on my own son. At 15 months or so I think he was probably speaking more Spanish–he heard a lot of Spanish his first year of life–but now at age two he speaks more English, as his exposure to English has increased.)

The researchers say the best way for children to learn a second language is through social interactions and daily exposure to the language.

“Learning a second language is like learning a sport,” said Garcia-Sierra, who is raising his two young children as bilingual. “The more you play, the better you get.”

“When the brain is exposed to two languages rather than only one, the most adaptive response is to stay open longer before showing the perceptual narrowing that monolingual infants typically show at the end of the first year of life,” Garcia-Sierra said.

Looking for Stories Outside the Classroom

For education reporters, it can be all too easy to limit our coverage to school board meetings, education policy and inside-the-classroom activities. After all, those areas alone can keep a beat reporter busy seven days a week.

But it’s important to remember that much of what affects student performance happens outside the school property. (As a teacher, I was made acutely aware of this whenever one of my students shared a piece of their home life with me. Many were grappling with divorce, death, illness, abuse–as well as regular teenage angst.)

I was reminded of this while reading about a settlement in a decade-old lawsuit involving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, advocacy groups and parents from Pajaro Valley, Salinas and Ventura County in California. As recounted in this Huffington Post piece and this San Jose Mercury-News story, the suit claimed that state regulators discriminated against Latino children by allowing a harmful pesticide to be used near their schools.

The children whose parents filed the original 1999 complaint have since graduated from high school, but this case serves as an example of some of the issues students can face outside the classroom. Many low-income Latino children live in neighborhoods with environmental hazards or societal dangers. They may be  coping with hunger or lack of medical care.

For those Latino students from middle or upper-class homes, pressures outside the classroom may include the difficulty of balancing two cultures, or the demands of honors classes or the college admissions gauntlet. In some communities, there may be tension between different social, ethnic or racial student groups (where you could even stumble across a Romeo-and-Juliet tale).

It’s always a good idea to cultivate sources among parent organizations, community activists, and student groups, where you can mine for story ideas about life outside school. Student newspapers or online publications can also be a trove of story ideas. Many schools are also creating public Facebook pages for students, teachers and parents. Keep an eye on those discussion board for tidbits about the concerns facing students in your districts.

Raising Multilingual Children, Starting with Pre-K

As both the mom of a bilingual toddler and an observer of how children in a Chicago Mexican immigrant neighborhood learn English, I have more to say about the AP story on how parents raise children multilingually.

My husband and I are each fluent in our respective native languages, Spanish and English, but neither of us is fluent in the other’s first language. Because my Spanish is a bit stronger than my husband’s English, our language practice falls somewhere in between minority language at home (MLAH) and one parent, one language (OPOL). My husband and I converse in Spanish until I run out of gas, then I switch to English and he follows along. If we need to switch back to Spanish, we do once I’ve recovered some energy or come up with a linguistic workaround. Each of us tends to speak to our son in our native tongue but not always. Through much of my son’s first year of life, his dad worked overnight shifts.  I spoke a lot of Spanish to him during the day while Papa was sleeping.

While I applaud the mom  in the lead of the AP story for setting the rule that everyone speaking to her daughter should speak the language they know best and only that language, it hasn’t always worked that way in our house. My husband is shy about speaking English; correct pronunciation is a struggle for him. He has enjoyed speaking it with my son, especially when the child was pre-verbal, partly because he felt he wouldn’t be judged on his mistakes. I thought giving my husband pronunciation practice by reading simple children’s books was a great idea, and I wasn’t worried that my son’s English would suffer from a few less-than-perfect doses of the language because I speak English fluently. Over the last year, many of our friends and family have commented on how much my husband’s English has improved!

Now, though, I’m thinking it’s time for my husband to push the Spanish and for us to try to speak more Spanish-only at home. My son understands both English and Spanish well, but he speaks much more English.

Over the next few months, he’ll be transitioning from a part-time nanny  to a daycare center. The nanny knows both English and Spanish but tends to speak to him in English. The daycare center has Spanish-speaking teachers and a dual-language preschool. However, I’m told  in the toddler/two room they “just focus on getting them to speak,” which presumably means English will be the focus.

Watching my son master language has been fascinating. His first word after mama and dada was agua (water). A few more Spanish words came along, then it was all English all the time for a while. We’ve recently seen a resurgence of Spanish, including counting. He counts more with his dad so “uno, dos, tres” came first. In English, he started counting “nine, eight, seven” first because I count backward when it’s time for him to get out of the bathtub!

Meanwhile, in watching the neighbor kids, I can see that by three or four of them have enough social English to talk with me on the street. They pick it up from their older siblings. The real challenge is whether they can read or not, in either language. Some do, some don’t.

Few States Have Standards that Support Early ELLs

Yesterday, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) released an issue brief on state policies supporting young English-language-learners.  The brief cites a 2010 Urban Institute report that says one in four U.S. children has a parent who was born in another country. Most of these children speak a language other than English at home.

Many middle-class parents with multilingual backgrounds–like the family in this recent AP story–actively support their children’s language learning in both English and the language they speak at home. These families also work hard to find dual-language school options for their children. Less affluent families, in contrast, may lack the time and resources to support their children’s language development, often prioritize their children’s education in English–even when their own language competence is in another tongue–and trust school systems to educate their children effectively in English.

Alas, CLASP’s policy scan indicates the trust of those less-affluent families might be misplaced. While research shows that supporting a child’s growth in the use of his home language often strengthens his ability to master English, only one state–Illinois–requires bilingual services for three- and four-year-olds in state pre-kindergarten programs. And, according to the National Council of LaRaza, only Alaska has comprehensive early learning standards that explicitly support dual language learning across children’s developmental domains.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education released its final guidelines for the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. While CLASP calls the new competition an opportunity for states to revisit their early learning standards in light of recent research on both how children acquire multiple languages and the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, I’m not sure how high a priority that perspective will be. It sounds like the main goals for the Early Learning Challenge are to get states to align their many offices involved in early childhood better and to develop systems that help parents find high-quality childcare and early learning programs. The extent to which these changes will benefit English-language learning preschoolers remains to be seen.

Bullying Takes Academic Toll on Latinos

Do Latino and black students suffer more from bullying than white students?

According to a report presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, the answer is yes. A study, which examined the effect of bullying on 9,590 students from 580 schools, found that the grade point averages of Latino and black students who had been bullied dropped by a larger margin than the GPAs of bullied white students.

While white students who reported being bullied in 10th grade saw their GPAs fall by .03 points from 9th to 12th grade, Latino students who had a 3.5 GPA in 9th grade experienced a .5 point drop by the 12th grade.

The study’s lead author believes high-achieving black and Latino students may be especially vulnerable because they defy negative stereotypes.

But education reporters should also look at the context of the communities they cover. Has there been a increase in anti-immigrant sentiment, which might spill over into school hallways? Ask school officials and community advocates if they are seeing any incidents of bullying targeting specific ethnic or immigrant groups.

Back-to-School Brainstorming

In Houston, the temperature is the 100’s, the leaves are turning brown and auburn (from a stubborn drought), and kids are stocking up on pencils, notebooks and backpacks.

That can only mean one thing: The school year is starting again. In the next few weeks, classes will kick off in districts around the country. So where are good story ideas lurking for education writers and others covering Latino communities?

Here are some thoughts and possible resources:

1. The burgeoning Latino student population. As the white population shrinks and the Latino population grows through immigration and births, school demographics are undergoing a major shift. The changes in the student body will affect curriculum, resources, funding, and the racial/ethnic make-up of the teacher corps. How is your district handling an evolving student population? Is it straining under the additional costs of non-English speaking students? Has it created innovative programs to meet the needs of Latino students? This Brookings Institute report looks at the growing diversity of the child population.

2. Reading lists. By now, most K-12 English and  language arts departments have mapped out reading lists for the year. Do the lists stick to the white European canon–or do they include Latino and other non-white writers? It’s worth comparing the student demographics and the classroom curriculum (in English and other content areas). Do they reflect each other? Talk to teachers, students, and parents about the books students will be reading this year. Go to a local Barnes & Noble and check out the books-for-school pile; that will give you a good idea of what schools in your area are planning. Another source could be the National Council of  Teachers of English.

3. Programs for college-bound kids. Not all Latino students are newly arrived immigrants with poor English skills who struggle in school. Many are honor roll students headed for college, or kids striving to be on that path. Remember to include that cohort in your beat coverage by looking at programs geared for the college-bound. Do Advanced Placement classes include a representation of Latino students? If not, is your district doing anything to reach out to those students? If your school offers AVID, a college readiness program that targets kids in the “academic middle” and first-generation college-bound, take a look at the results (how many go on to college) and the demographics of participants (almost half of AVID students nationwide are Latino).

A Look at the Success Story of Finland’s Schools

The September issue of Smithsonian magazine includes this fascinating piece about the school system in Finland, which is routinely ranked among the best in the world.

Among the most striking points: Finnish teachers are granted much more autonomy and respect than U.S. educators. Finland’s teachers are selected from the top 10 percent of graduates and must hold a master’s degree, and there are no mandated standardized tests in Finland (which frees teachers from having to devote precious class time to “teaching to the test.”)

Even more interesting is the revelation that the once-homogenous country has had to adapt to a quickly growing immigrant community and a diversifying student body — just as school districts across the U.S. are doing.

One anecdote in particular points out some ways Finnish schools are dealing with those challenges:

“The wispy 7-year-old had recently arrived from Thailand speaking not a word of Finnish. She was studying math down the hall in a special ‘preparing class’ taught by an expert in multicultural learning. It is designed to help children keep up with their subjects while they conquer the language. Kirkkojarvi’s teachers have learned to deal with their unusually large number of immigrant students. The city of Espoo helps them out with an extra 82,000 euros a year in ‘positive discrimination’ funds to pay for things like special resource teachers, counselors and six special needs classes.”

That’s a marked contrast to the U.S. system, where schools and ELL teachers must often scramble to find time, funding and resources to make sure immigrant students don’t slip through the cracks or fall behind in subjects while learning English.  It’s also worth noting the amount of social services Finland provides its students. According to the story, “schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.”

As some researchers studying how to improve Latino achievement rates in the United States have noted, many of the problems facing low-income, immigrant students stem from poverty, hunger, lack of medical care or problems at home.

Where are the Spanish-Language Toddler Books?

I’m on a quest. My son’s second birthday is coming up this weekend, and I want to find the books for two-year-olds that children read with their parents in Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. So far, the best one I have is a book my in-laws brought up from Mexico when they visited last summer, La Guardaría (The Nursery). I’m ashamed to confess our home library of Spanish and bilingual titles is pretty small and mostly consists of translations from books first published in English. Before I had my own child, I was obsessed with obtaining such books and passing them out to my neighbors; these days, reading my son the ones we were given by family and friends keeps me occupied.

Let me say first off we are just getting into checking out books from the library. Up to now, I haven’t been fully confident we’d be able to send the books back in the same condition we checked them out. We have a stack of five or so from our local library branch, which has a good quantity of kids’ books in Spanish.  Again, many are geared toward older children. My husband (our primary Spanish-speaker) still chose three or four in English to one or two in Spanish.

One would think that in this Internet age, finding Spanish-language books for toddlers would be an easy search. Alas, it has not been so easy for me. I’ll admit my aversion to online shopping increases the challenge, but when Amazon’s Best Spanish-Language Books for Kids kicks off with 11 translations from English, you know you’re in trouble.

The nearest Spanish-language bookstore to my home, Librería Girón in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, does not have a kids’ section that knocks my socks off. The last time we were there, we ended up buying an English-language copy of Thomas and Friends (complete with small plastic trains and a map), but most of the books were Disney knock-offs and such. I left feeling frustrated.

Washington, D.C.’s public television station provides a web site, Colorín Colorado, that has a great selection of preschool and picture books, including stories from Mexico, so it wins the prize for best online resource I’ve found so far. But I’m still looking, so readers’ tips are encouraged.

Stanford Will Help ELLs Prepare for Common Core Standards

The announcement this week that Stanford University is launching an initiative to help English Language Learners meet Common Core State Standards in math and language arts brought up some story nuggets that have been simmering in the back of my mind.

The initiative itself provides a good opportunity to look at what states and individual school districts are doing to prepare ELLs to succeed under the new curriculum standards that 46 states have adopted.

As the initiative’s principal investigator, Kenji Hakuta, points out: “The Common Core and the National Academy framework for K-12 science are going to demand high levels of language from students and teachers alike … Our current education tends to obscure the role of language, and our project will make the language that kids need to succeed academically much more visible so that it helps guide what goes on in the classroom.”

In other words, are ELLs being given the kind of classroom support they need to succeed under the new framework? As this report from the National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners shows, students learning a new language often struggle with academic vocabulary, which is key to performing well in the classroom.

One way to start researching story ideas might be to get more details about the Stanford project, which is described as partnership with “local, state, and federal educational agencies; experts in Common-Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics; developers of the next-generation science standards; and developers of new English language proficiency standards, as well as advocacy groups, publishers, and test makers.”

What exactly will researchers do through this collaboration? Will they produce curriculum guidelines? Policies? Research data?

If you are in a state that has adopted the Common Core Standards, ask the schools you cover whether they are considering programs or strategies to help ELLs–or better yet, find out if they are one of the districts that will be part of the Stanford initiative, which promises to help schools and teachers “create clear specifications and exemplars of how teachers can foster English language proficiency as part of subject matter instruction, above and beyond any English as a Second Language (ESL).”