Despite Immigration Law, Alabama’s Latino Enrollment Holds Steady

I’ve been wondering about the classroom impact of new laws cracking down on illegal immigration that have been passed in Alabama, Georgia, Arizona and in municipalities across the country.

According to this Associate Press story, Alabama’s law seems to have had little impact on Latino enrollment. So far, school districts are reporting no drop in the number of Latino students, despite a provision in that law which requires schools to determine the immigration status of students.

However, advocates point out that the numbers might be high now because parents are rushing to enroll children before the law takes effect on Sept. 1.

As the school year plays out, it would be smart to keep an eye on the Latino enrollment trend in districts where such immigration laws have been passed or are being considered. If you haven’t already done so, education writers should also make an effort to build sources among immigrant advocacy organizations, which are often best attuned to the concerns and fears of immigrant families. They could lead you to unexpected stories.

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Educating Immigrant Students

As school districts search for ways to accommodate growing immigrant populations, one trend seems to be emerging: separate schools for newcomers.

In Massachusetts, one group has proposed the Somerville Progressive Charter School, which would serve “the needs of children in Somerville whose first language is not English, the children of fairly recent immigrants,’’ according to this Boston Globe story. The student population in Somerville, a city adjacent to Cambridge, is more than 50 percent immigrant, the group says.

Other similar schools have popped up across the country. In New York City, as this New York Times story shows, there is the Ellis Preparatory School in the South Bronx for students arriving with little or no formal schooling and the Internationals Network for Public Schools for immigrants of all educational levels. In Colorado, The New America School system serves English Language Learners and their families.

These schools offer smaller settings and more focused instruction. It is unclear, however, if this approach is more effective than including new immigrants in mainstream schools.

But, as the Times story notes, “the system over all generally does not serve these immigrants well.” Too often, schools can shuttle new immigrants into special education programs or keep them in classrooms where work stagnates at a basic levels. The range of learning levels is also challenging for teachers, who may have some newcomer students who are unable to read a picture book, while others can produce three-page essays.

How does your district educate recently arrived immigrants? Are they funneled into the general student population, or is there a separate program designed specifically for the needs of newcomers? Have new charter schools serving this population started to pop up?

Most importantly, what are the educational outcomes for immigrant students? Does your district or state track this group?

A quick story could take a look at a day in such a school or a program, telling the stories of the students. (They are often compelling, sometimes heartbreaking). For a more in-depth analysis, examine the student population, the curriculum, graduation rates, and the number of immigrants in special education.

Two Ways to Be Bilingual: Dual Language vs. English Immersion

The growth in the Latino school-age population contains the seed for countless education stories, about issues ranging from funding to curriculum to overcrowding.

One topic particularly worth examining is the effectiveness of dual language vs. English immersion programs–an ongoing debate among educators and academics for decades. The real story, of course, is in the people who are affected: the students, their families and the communities.

In dual language programs, there is an equal balance between students who are native Spanish speakers and those who are native English speakers, and the material is taught in both languages. The English immersion approach is exactly what it sounds like: Students are taught only in English.

For this story in the Wisconsin State Journal, Matthew DeFour looked at the challenges facing the Madison School District’s dual language program. In its eighth year, the program is both expanding to include languages other than Spanish even while it’s facing criticism that it has not helped close the achievement gaps between Latino and non-Latino students, English-language learners and English-proficient students.

Another story in the San Antonio Express-News focused on the growing number of dual language students in preschool and elementary school. The article lists several school districts that are expanding programs in the elementary level. The story states that “According to the Texas Two-Way Dual Language Education website, there are 29 dual-language programs in San Antonio public schools out of 352 in the state, and the numbers are growing.”

But the question remains: Which approach is more effective? One way to seek an answer is to look at data, studies and research that examine student outcomes.  Another way is to find students, parents and teachers and ask what they think. How did a dual language or English-only approach affect their lives–both inside and outside the classroom? Did they master English? How did that alter family dynamics, especially if the parents speak only Spanish?

In this piece by WGBH in Boston, Andrea Smardon looks at the impact of Massachusett’s English immersion law, which was passed in 2002, and talks to a student who says the English-only approach worked for him.

What is happening in your state or district? Do schools offer dual language or English-only? Or both?

Perhaps you could find a student or classsroom representing both types of programs to follow and profile for a story that brings the academic debate to the human level.

NCLR Convention Examines Latino Education Issues

Latino education issues were one of the big topics at the National Council of La Raza’s annual convention. Among the topics addressed were ways to stem the high dropout rate among Latinos, parent and community involvement, and education reform.

An education town hall addressing “Hispanic Education in the 21st Century” looked at the federal role in education. A video of the town hall can be viewed online here.

Here are some takeaways from the town hall, and possible story leads to follow:

  • NCLR’s Secretary Juan Sanchez suggested that Latino leaders take control of education by running for school board or building charter schools. His assertion poses a lot of possible story leads. What do the school boards in your districts look like? Do they reflect the student demographics of the schools? Are Latinos represented on school boards? And what does that mean in terms of votes on issues important to Latinos? Look at charter schools in your area. What are their demographics? Do they reflect the populations of their neighborhoods? Some Houston area charter schools in African-American neighborhoods are predominantly Latino and have trouble attracting African-American students. It would be interesting to examine the underlying reasons for trends like that.
  •  Es el Momento, a joint multiyear initiative by Univision, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the NCLR and community organizations, is designed to foster a college-bound culture in the Latino community. Possible story leads: What do your local school districts and community organizations do to reach out to Latino parents? Are there programs that educate immigrant parents on the steps their children need to get into college? If those programs don’t exist, then ask Latino parents what they know about navigating the college admission maze (which is already confusing for savvy parents).
  • One panelist pointed to Pell Grant cuts as one of the most pressing education issues. About 40 percent of Latino students depend on Pell Grants to pay for college. Possible story lead: Follow some Latino high school seniors through the college application process for an in-depth narrative or a series of stories throughout the school year. What are their hopes, dreams and obstacles? What kind of financial aid is available for low-income Latinos? If they are first generation college-goers, do they get adequate counseling and information about applying to schools? What are issues specific to Latino students? What is universal for all seniors?

Who Gets Hurt the Most by Education Funding Cuts?

As wave after wave of budget cuts hits school districts around the country, it’s worthwhile to ask who the cutbacks are hurting the most.

This piece from the Silicon Valley Education Foundation compiles a convincing array of reports and studies to conclude that the neediest schools suffer the most, with programs serving low-income students and English learners among those hit the hardest.

Among the findings cited:

  • “High-poverty schools are nearly three times more likely than low-poverty schools (49 percent vs. 17 percent) to eliminate summer school outright and four times more likely (65.6 percent vs. 15 percent) to experience teacher layoffs.”
  •  In 2008-2009, middle schools with “more than 90 percent Latino, African American, and American Indian students were almost 10 times more likely than schools with a majority of white and Asian students to experience severe shortages of qualified teachers.”

Chances are good that school districts in your area are grappling with funding cuts. Look closely at what is being cut and who those cuts are affecting. Are after-school programs that serve Latino and African-American students or classes for English Learners on the chopping block? Are schools in more affluent neighborhoods able to offset the cuts through private donations, while schools in low-income neighborhoods are left struggling? How do those cuts affect Latino students and other children of color?

Mother and Child, Learning Together

A number of early childhood learning experts I’ve talked with describe programs like Head Start and Educare as “two-generation” strategies: They not only benefit young children directly, but they also help parents increase their parenting skills and further their own educations. At heart, strengthening a parent’s literacy and commitment to education pays off for both parent and child, especially before children enter elementary school.

Now, the National Center for Family Literacy and the MetLife Foundation are teaming up to award 10 grants of $25,000 each for partnerships between community colleges and family literacy programs. The application deadline is Aug. 22 and awardees will pursue their projects through the 2012 calendar year. You can find out more about the application process here.

Plenty of studies show that the mother’s level of education is the pre-eminent factor in determining her child’s educational success. But if one listens enough to that drumbeat, it can feel like there’s no hope for children of parents with little formal schooling. Yet research also shows that children can benefit when parents attain higher levels of education. According to a 2007 study by the Center for Economic Policy Research, children’s performance on a standardized math test can be increased 1.5 points for every additional year of maternal schooling.

Reporters in Florida, Rhode Island and Kentucky might be particularly interested in a recent report on such partnerships that feature case studies based in Columbia County, Providence and Jefferson County. Many of the students profiled are Latinas raising young children and trying to further their own education: learning English, passing the GED and moving on to begin college-level coursework. The adult education field has long struggled to help its students transition successfully to college courses and, ultimately, degrees. Though current statistics on transition are dismal (Only three percent of GED recipients earn associate’s degrees), the three programs profiled are beating those odds. Building strong personal relationships with students and offering childcare and flexible course scheduling appear to be among the components for success.

Funding Stalls Efforts to Bridge Preschool and K-3

You may have spotted Sarah Garland’s great article on the Pre-K -3 movement either at the Hechinger site or at Education Week. Pre-K-3 is a new effort among funders and early learning advocates to build better bridges from preschool to kindergarten and beyond. Garland paints it as an ambitious policy agenda covering universal preschool, full-day kindergarten for all and connected curriculum from pre-school through third grade.

I think her reporting shows that the most important step to bridge elementary school from preschool effectively is getting the pre-K and early elementary teachers in the same room to talk about what they are doing. The lead of the piece shows preschool and kindergarten teachers in Santa Maria, Calif., a mostly Hispanic and low-income city north of Santa Barbara, making exactly this kind of connection. The kindergarten teachers told the preschool teachers that the children, mostly from immigrant families, struggled with stories in the reading curriculum, like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Humpty Dumpty.” So the preschool teachers began reading those stories with the children to help familiarize them with classics of the American children’s canon.

Budget cuts sadly have hamstrung Santa Maria in its effort to link preschool and the early elementary grades more explicitly. The biggest problem is lack of money for preschool: Many children lack access to the program. The city had a kindergarten transition program but that has been eliminated for lack of funds. Though Garland’s piece links the city’s efforts “with only small test score gains,” I’d view it in more of a glass-half-full way. That the town has seen test scores increase slightly with this modest effort to bridge preschool and the first few years of grade school seems to me to be a glimmer of hope.

Garland’s piece points to the nearby town of Carpinteria as a place that has looked to Santa Maria’s example and is trying to expand the work by improving teacher quality and building a community center including mom-and-tot activities for stay-at-home mothers.

It will be interesting to see how pre-K-3 efforts play out across the country, especially as state and federal funds become even tighter. How those efforts will play out in Latino communities and what distinct features they might have should be worth watching, too.

In Chicagoland, a Surge in Latino Preschoolers

Today’s Chicago Tribune continues its recent census coverage with a story on the surging numbers of Latino preschoolers throughout the city and its surrounding suburbs. (Full disclosure: My son is one of them.) Within Chicago proper, just over 40 percent of children under age five are Latino. The recent census data confirms a local trend that demographers have been watching over the past few years: More Latinos are moving from Chicago to the suburbs, including new immigrants who now are bypassing Chicago altogether in favor of suburban locales. Today’s story notes that in over 30 Chicago-area suburbs, more than half of preschool-age children are Latino. In the western suburbs of Cicero and Melrose Park, that figure rises to more than 80 percent.

The article also highlights the scramble Latino parents are facing to find preschool programs. El Hogar de Nino, an early childhood development center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, now has a six-month wait list and families from surrounding neighborhoods like Little Village and the even more middle-class Bridgeport are clamoring to get their children in. The article cites statewide stats showing that while more than half of both white and African-American children attend preschool, only 35 percent of Latino children do so. They got a great quote from a mother whose children attend El Hogar de Nino: “What I hope to provide my children with is power. I want them to have the power to enter into a good university. But we will take things step by step.”

The story also mentions growth in school districts’ dual-language offerings and workshops for parents and teachers to bridge language and culture barriers. I would have liked more discussion of this, or even a sidebar or an online article on the topic. We’re left with a brief quote from a district early education manager in south suburban Cook County saying:

“Our goal is not to teach children English, per se. That can be controversial. But it’s about us building a strong language foundation and a pre-academic readiness for our children, whatever the home language its.”

This sparked some fire in the online comments (not surprisingly). I think it would have better served the readers and the district official quoted to give a bit more detail on what this program actually does. Without that information, readers are left with a quotation that lacks context that unintentionally sparks controversy about language learning.

I took a look at the district website in hopes of getting a better feel. While I couldn’t find a real program description of their early childhood offerings, I did find a parent newsletter from last fall (I read the English one; it was also available in Spanish). It offered general tips for parents on helping their children build vocabulary: read every day, get books from the library, etc. It also addressed parents’ concerns that their children are spending too much time in preschool playing and not enough time learning numbers, colors, letters and shapes. (This is the expectations gap referred to in Preschool in Three Cultures, as I discussed recently.)

Overall, the reporters did a great job packing lots of information and statistics into their piece and covered the basic issues well. The thing I would have liked to see here was more discussion of the challenges faced by suburbs where the youngest residents are majority Latino yet the schools and other services employ few Latino adults. There’s not much controversy in the story–I think because within the city of Chicago, there’s not much controversy about the Latino presence here–but my sense is the changing demographic is more of a flashpoint in the suburbs. You wouldn’t really know that from reading this piece.

Number of Latino Teachers Increases but Remains Low

Deep inside a new report about this country’s teachers is this interesting tidbit: “The proportion of K-12 teachers who are white has dropped from 91 percent in 1986 to 84 percent in 2011.”

While the trend might be positive in terms of increasing diversity among the ranks of teachers, it still means only 16 percent of teachers are non-white. Broken down a little more, the numbers in the report by the National Center for Education Information show that just 6 percent of teachers are Latino.

Compare that number to the quickly increasing number of minority students in schools. A report from the Children’s Defense Fund, which outlines challenges facing American youth, showed that 45 percent of children are non-white. By 2019, children of color are expected to be in the majority.

In nine states and the District of Columbia, children of color already constitute a majority, and Latino children account for one in four children in the U.S. The number of Latino children is steadily increasing, while the number of white children has decreased every year since 1994.

But as the National Center for Education Information survey showed, the nation’s teaching ranks do not reflect these changing demographics. In Texas, Latinos make up nearly half the student population and are growing in numbers,  yet only 22 percent of teachers there are Hispanic.

What effect does that have on learning? Do Latino children respond better when their teachers personally reflect their cultures and experiences? Are Latino teachers more likely to incorporate materials and lessons that appeal to diverse student populations? Do Latino parents work better with Latino teachers?

It is worth taking a look at the demographics in your school district. Examine the breakdown and trends among teachers, administrators and students. Is there a gap between the make-up of students and their teachers? How does that translate into the classrooms?

Perhaps a school with few Latino teachers has found a way to bridge the cultural gaps successfully–or is working on doing so. Perhaps a district with a growing Latino student enrollment is actively recruiting Latino teachers. Both could make for meaty stories about an ongoing issue: How will school districts adapt to the continued growth of the nation’s Latino population?

Are Schools Encouraging Bilingualism?

In years past, immigrant parents and educators actively discouraged children from speaking their native languages, thinking that it would smooth the way for assimilation and achievement in school. Today, however, a growing body of research is pointing to the benefits of speaking more than one language, and a growing number of parents are searching for the best way to raise multilingual children.

This article, by Associated Press writer Rasha Madkour, looks at the benefits of bilingualism and some of the methods used by parents, such as “OPOL (one parent, one language) and mL(at)H (minority language at home).”

As Madkour points out: “The benefits and drawbacks of each method are a hot topic of debate by parents and educators in blogs and online forums.”

Research, including the findings presented at this conference, have found that one way to help immigrant students master English literacy skills is to support their native language and culture.

What are schools and families doing in your area? Do they still discourage Latino and other immigrant children from speaking native languages at home or are they promoting bilingualism?