In NYC, Mexican Immigrants Face Education Crisis

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving!

I spent part of mine catching up on some interesting news related to Latinos and education. One story in particular that caught my eye was this New York Times piece by Kirk Semple. It examines some disturbing data about Mexican immigrant children in New York City. According to Semple, about 41 percent of Mexicans between ages 16 and 19 have dropped out of school, compared to the overall city rate of 9 percent. No other immigrant group has a dropout rate higher than 20 percent. The low education rates continue to the college level, where only 6 percent of Mexican immigrants 19 to 23 without a college degree are enrolled in higher education.

Because Mexicans are the fastest-growing immigrant population in the city, the prospect of a sizable, largely uneducated percentage of them bodes ill for the city’s entire population.

Semple quotes Robert C. Smith, a sociology professor at the City University of New York, as saying the crisis is the result of “a perfect storm of educational disadvantage.” The contributing factors include: poverty, undocumented immigrant status, parents who are uneducated and work in more than one job, language barriers and fear of contact with school officials. Often, parents have no time for school involvement or are afraid that becoming involved might lead to deportation. In addition, there are few tutoring or mentoring programs specifically intended for Mexicans.

The problems might be more acute in New York, but it is worthwhile for education reporters in other parts of the country to see if the same problems are plaguing Mexican or other immigrant groups in their area.

  • Are there mentoring and tutoring programs geared toward those populations?
  • Are parents reluctant to become involved for fear of deportation or language limitations?
  • Do students, such as some in Semple’s story, simply “give up” because they feel higher education is closed off to them?
  • What happens to students who do drop out? Are they working or hanging out on corners?
  • Is anything being done to stem the tide? Are community groups setting up tutoring programs? Are schools doing outreach to bring dropouts back to classrooms?

Looking at the Effects of Ethnic Studies Curriculum

School districts across the country are scrambling to adapt to the growing number of Latino students by hiring more Latino teachers and incorporating more culturally appropriate material into the curriculum. In Arizona, however, a recently passed state law is designed to get rid of ethnic studies classes, which opponents say are divisive.

According to this Los Angeles Times story, Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal will soon decide whether a Mexican American studies program in the Tuscon school district violates that law.

Huppenthal believes that the classes have “a very toxic effect, and we think it’s just not tolerable in an educational setting.” Proponents, on the other hand, say such programs encourage Latino students to succeed and include perspectives normally left out of the mainstream curriculum.

The controversy highlights an interesting angle for education reporters covering school districts with shifting demographics: What happens when schools revamp the curriculum to include Latino — or other ethnic-studies — material? Do student scores improve? (In the Tuscon school district, 89 percent of students in the program graduated from high school). Is there resistance from school officials or negative impact on non-Latino students?

Taking a Look at the Difference Principals Can Make

The Rafael Hernandez School, one of the first dual-language schools in the country, is an oasis in a hardscrabble Boston neighborhood, a place where students learn in English and Spanish and succeed in both languages.

In a Nov. 20 piece, Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham attributes much of the school’s success to long-time principal Margarita Muñiz, who died last week after a struggle with cancer. Abraham writes:

“In her 30 years leading Hernandez, Muñiz never seemed to doubt that a school where Latino and other students are taught in both Spanish and English could work brilliantly. She demanded enormous effort from teachers, parents, and kids to make it so, convinced the school could work only if everyone in the building learned every day. And she threw her most valuable resource — her formidable will — behind them all.”

The school’s achievement rubbed off on the nearby blocks, notes Abraham, pointing out that “Great schools can transform neighborhoods, and Hernandez became an anchor for the community — with a little nudging from Muñiz.”

For education reporters, two lessons can be gleaned from Abraham’s story. The first is that coverage needs to include all the players in the education equation. Not just teachers, students, and parents, but also administrators, school counselors, curriculum writers and other behind-the-scenes players. Seek out the people making a difference in the schools you cover: the principals and the secretaries; the athletic coaches and the literacy coaches; the parent volunteers and the band directors.

The second lesson is that schools don’t exist in a vacuum. Take a look at the neighborhood surrounding the campus. How does the school affect the neighborhood and vice versa? Does the school serve as a gathering place for local kids? Does it offer programs or night classes for parents wanting to learn English? Do the teachers know the neighborhood they work in – or do they go straight from their cars to the school doors?

As Abraham’s column shows, there are education stories to be found beyond the usual suspects.

One Latina’s Story Offers Insights for Coverage

A story this week in the Los Angeles Times illustrates the importance and impact of examining a larger trend through the prism of one person’s experience.

In “A hard life for one Latino teenager,” Richard Fausset documents the world of Miriam Hernandez, a 16-year-old Georgia-born teenager whose biological father was a Mexican immigrant and whose mother is a white Southerner. Miriam’s stepfather is an illegal immigrant who returned to his native El Salvador rather than face deportation.

The piece, part of the paper’s ongoing series examining “The New Latino South,” follows Miriam as she goes to school, works various jobs to support her family and tries to navigate daily life in a place adapting to sweeping demographic changes.

Like thousands of other Latino teenagers, Miriam is a blend of cultures and often caught between worlds, as Fausset points out in this description:

She sings along to Sinaloan bandas when she is busing tables at her uncle’s Mexican restaurant out by the shuttered chicken plant. She sings along to country hit-maker Luke Bryant when she’s driving in the family van with her white Southern mother.”

And in this one:

“[Miriam], the newest kind of American Southerner, struggles to survive and succeed and make sense of the world that remains.

She is in the Junior ROTC at Cedar Shoals High School. She is taking an honors literature course. She aspires to attend college and have a white-collar career, perhaps one that exploits her ability to bridge two cultures that can seem irreconcilably disconnected.

Perhaps, she says, she will become an immigration attorney.”

The story highlights a population that is growing quickly but remains often unexamined or covered in simplistic generalizations: Latino youth. It also contains lessons for reporters covering Latino issues.

  • Spend as much time as possible with your subject. It’s difficult to do in these days of banging out stories, but Fausset’s meticulously reported piece shows the rewards of being a fly on the wall. The reader gets a clear sense of Miriam’s struggles, dreams, and conflicting loyalties.
  • Put your subject in context. Even while focusing on one person or one school, remember that what you find often illustrates a greater trend or more universal concern. As Fausset notes: “Miriam’s world did not really exist two decades ago. In 1990, there were about 100,000 Latinos in Georgia; today there are 850,000.”
  • Look for small moments and details that reveal volumes. An example from Fausset’s piece: “The police have pulled her over twice recently, and both times asked if she was a legal resident. It pains her. So does the absence of people in her life who were, in fact, here illegally — the stepfather and her boyfriend, the friends and friends’ parents — all of them forced back across the border, leaving families split and sometimes shattered.” In those two sentences, Fausset offers insight into the emotional roller coaster of young Latino immigrants with mixed-status families. 

Initiative Seeks to Boost Number of Latino Teachers

The lack of Latino teachers is a continuing narrative in education. Even as schools grapple with a growing Latino student body, the number of Latino teachers remains low — despite studies that show minority students perform better when taught by teachers of color.

Now, Teach For America has teamed up with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund in an effort to recruit more Latino teachers.

According to an announcement on the Teach For  America website, only 8 percent of the organization’s incoming teacher are Latinos, compared to 40 percent of the 600,000 taught by TFA corps members.

The initiative will award scholarships for Latino college students seeking degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines– creating a Latino recruiting pool for Teach For America.

Some questions for education reporters to answer: What is behind the dearth of Latino teachers? What is being done to bring more Latino teachers into classrooms? Do predominantly Latino schools perform better with more Latino teachers?

KIPP Initiative Seeks to Boost College Enrollment

Graduating from high school is not the only obstacle standing between Latino students and a college degree. Other hurdles include getting accepted to college, finding a way to pay for school and actually finishing a degree program.

This week, the KIPP Charter School chain announced a partnership with 10 universities across the country, designed to help KIPP students obtain college degrees.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the first partner will be the University of Houston. Other schools that have signed partnerships include: Tulane University, Colby College, Franklin & Marshall College and Davidson College

KIPP, which started in Houston in 1994, now has 27,000 students in Pre-K through 12th grade nationwide. Like most charter schools, the KIPP student population is predominantly minority and low-income. About 60 percent of students are African-American and 35 percent are Latino, according to the KIPP website.

According to the Chronicle story, about one-third of KIPP Houston graduates don’t have a degree. (About 40 percent of KIPP Houston have earned a bachelor’s or associate’s degree and 27 percent are still in college).

Under the new partnership, students will work with UH starting in middle school, getting guidance on how to navigate red tape, college culture and financial aid. They will also be paired with mentors. In addition, KIPP will also apply lessons learned from the program to help prepare graduates to succeed in college.

The new KIPP partnership is one of many initiatives across the country in which colleges are reaching out to middle and high schools in an effort to increase Latino postsecondary enrollment. The California State University system has also partnered with community groups and Univision for “Es El Momento.”

It would be interesting to visit some of these programs and examine how successful they are. Which initiatives are effective in increasing college enrollment? Do the students stay to complete degrees? Why or why not?

Talk to students and parents to find out what the obstacles to college really are, and whether word of such initiatives is reaching those who really need them.

Building Bridges from Pre-K to Elementary in Chicago

Everyone wants the schools that serve disadvantaged students to improve their instruction, but actually making that happen is difficult. A new report from Chicago-based Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) details how a group of 11 low-income, predominantly Latino schools have started to create change. Notably, the schools have built bridges to their pre-K programs and started to explore new methods for helping English-language learners build their English and literacy skills.

BPI, a longtime partner with some Chicago schools which focuses on improvement from the inside, built relationships with six Latino-majority schools on Chicago’s Northwest Side. BPI brokered a connection with California-based Targeted Leadership Consulting, an education consulting firm with a track record of success in San Diego’s Chula Vista School District. TLC began work with Chula Vista in 2001, when the district’s Academic Performance Index was 653 on a 200-1000 scale, below the state’s benchmark of 800. By 2011, the district’s overall API had risen to 861 and ranks first in California for the academic performance of its English-language learners.

What did TLC bring to Chicago? A six-step framework for school improvement:

1. Build shared leadership across the school–and across K-8 and pre-K, a notoriously tough divide to bridge;

2. Focus everyone on one instructional area, like literacy, that will improve learning for all students;

3. Look at the data and use it to guide teacher training and improve instructional practice;

4. Select a handful of effective teaching strategies and build teachers’ expertise in them;

5. Partner with parents and community in the work;

6. Put money and other resources behind each step.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Truth is, many school buildings never get past step one.

This report’s most useful section is the chapter on pre-K. Building bridges from K-8 down to pre-K is especially difficult. In most schools across the country, pre-K runs on a different day than the K-8 schools, making it tough to bring teachers together. Here in Chicago,  pre-K programs don’t have attendance boundaries but neighborhood schools do. When some pre-K children won’t be going to that particular elementary school for kindergarten, it conceivably reduces the school’s motivation to connect with that pre-K.

Bringing pre-K teachers to the table and choosing an instructional focus that applied from pre-K through 8th grade helped. Five of the 11 schools in BPI’s network included pre-K teachers on their instructional leadership teams; the rest kept them connected through a schoolwide representative like a literacy coach. All of them chose to work on reading comprehension, an important skill that can begin early by helping children from pre-K and up to ask questions, predict upcoming events and retell a story. A follow-up survey shows nearly all pre-K teachers were involved in schoolwide professional development, and “area” (subdistrict) leaders added targeted training on guided reading and reading comprehension activities for pre-K and kindergarten teachers.

The BPI work has led the area to look deeper into the question of how best to educate bilingual learners. In general, the Chicago Public Schools  system uses a three-year transitional bilingual education program, where children begin instruction mostly in their first language (here, Spanish), gradually tapering off until students have enough proficiency in English to make sense of an all-English classroom. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In reality, too many of Chicago’s ELL’s are lost between Spanish (or another home language) and English. Growing numbers of Chicago schools are experimenting with dual-language instruction in an effort to maintain and increase home-language skills while ensuring a strong foundation in English, too. In Chula Vista, 10 schools offer dual-immersion to about 2,000 students.

TLC helped the 11 schools examine a variety of bilingual program models, including time for explicit development of English-language skills. The group created a committee to determine a comprehensive bilingual instruction model for the area and all schools have structured their day to include time for explicit English-language development.

I’m hoping some enterprising Chicago reporter will head out to one of these schools and show us what all this looks like on the ground. In the meantime, reporters who want to know what school change looks like in action might want to find out if TLC is working in their area.

Initiative Seeks to Improve Latino College Participation Rate

One way to cover the achievement gap between Latinos and other students is to look at programs seeking to close the gap. One such initiative was launched this week by the Lumina Foundation, which is awarding $7.2 million in grants toward efforts to increase Latino participation in postsecondary education. The money will be distributed over a four-year period to nonprofit organizations in 10 states.

“Through these partnerships, we aim to build bridges among leadership groups already working to improve Latino college student success,” Lumina President and CEO Jamie Merisotis said in a release posted on the organization’s website.

The organization is running a national “Goal 2025 movement,” with the aim of boosting the number of Americans with postsecondary degrees to 60 percent by the year 2025.

Organizations in the following states are set to receive the grants: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The Latino grant program will include financial literacy training, efforts to improve the transition from K-12 to college and developmental classes for students not ready for college-level work.

Complaint against N.C. District Illustrates Larger Challenges

A teacher allegedly pushes a student against a wall and says, “Go back to your country.” Interpreters are not available for Spanish-speaking parents. Students are asked to provide immigration documents. Reports of Latino students being singled out or harassed circulate through the district.

Those were a few of the incidents that led to a civil rights complaint against the Durham Public Schools. According to the April complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law  Center, the North Carolina school district created a “hostile environment” for Latino students.

Last week, Fox News Latino and the Durham Herald-Sun reported that the school district has agreed to change its practices, strengthen antidiscrimination policies and provide better training to prevent such incidents in the future. The district, where Latinos make up about 21 percent of its 32,566 students, has already added information in Spanish on its website and translated some documents and notifications into Spanish.

Jerri Katzerman, the SPLC’s deputy legal director told the Herald-Sun that the agreement  “will mean that Latino students and parents will see an immediate improvement in their ability to connect and communicate with the school system. In the long term, it’s a commitment from Durham Public Schools to create a welcoming environment for all children.”

The case illustrates the challenges facing school districts as they adapt to changing demographics and a growing Latino student population. For education reporters, it also offers several areas to examine in covering local school districts:

  • Does your school district have enough interpreters for non-English-speaking parents? Do they use students as interpreters or go-betweens? The  SPLC complaint claimed that the Durham School District had only three Spanish-language interpreters for more than 5,300 students and their parents. Often, the complaint said, schools asked students to step in as translators.
  • Do schools in your districts translate documents, school information and other notifications? Or do Spanish-speaking parents feel isolated or ignored when it comes to invitations about open houses or information regarding classroom policies and events, as parents in the Durham schools felt?
  • Do the districts you cover offer cultural awareness training for teachers, administrators and other staff members? How do they handle incidents such as those reported in Durham where Latino students felt “singled out, unwanted and, in some extreme situations, harassed”?

Sexual Harassment in School Leads to Absenteeism, Behavior Problems

Sexual harassment is not just limited to the workplace. According to Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, a new study from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), it’s increasingly becoming a problem in middle and high school classrooms and corridors.

According to a  survey of 1,965 students in 7th to 12th grades, harassment — whether in the form of unwanted sexual comments, jokes, gestures, physical overtures, or through email and Facebook — are a part of daily school life. About 48 percent of students said they had experienced some type of sexual harassment in 2010-2011. An overwhelming majority of those students — 87 percent — said the harassment had negative effects, which included a drop in productivity and increased absenteeism.

In the survey, sexual harassment included being touched in an unwelcome way, being called gay or lesbian in an unwanted way, having someone flash or expose themselves, and being shown sexual pictures the viewer didn’t want to see.

About one-third of students said they were harassed through electronic means such as email or Facebook. Many of those students also reported being sexually harassed in person.

Fifty-six percent of girls reported being sexually harassed, compared to 40 percent of boys. Girls were also more likely to be harassed both in person and in cyberspace.

Although the survey showed no significant difference in the prevalence of sexual harassment among different racial and ethnic groups, the findings suggest that black and Latino students may be affected more than white students. According to the report, Latino students are more likely to stay out of school because of sexual harassment. Black students who had been sexually harassed were more likely to get in trouble at school, drop out of activities and experienced trouble studying.

The report is another reminder that test scores and school achievement are often affected by factors that have nothing to do with academics. It also raises the question of how schools deal with sexual harassment. Is there a policy for handling sexual harassment reports from students? Do counselors and teachers receive training in how to help students who have experienced harassment?

In addition, why do Latino and black students seem to face more adverse effects due to harassment? Are their reports handled differently? Do they lack an out-of-school support system?