Less Affluent Schools, Lower Physical Education Scores?

Latino children from low-income families face more than just academic struggles. As this story in the New York Times points out, they may also face health problems, which in turn, can contribute to lower school achievement.

The story, produced by the Bay Citizen for the Times, examined state data of student performance in California’s statewide physical fitness test. It found that students from more affluent schools scored higher than students from low-income schools.

At the affluent Sycamore Valley Elementary, for example, 83 percent of  fifth graders received healthy scores on six different measurements. However, at Cesar Chavez Elementary, where many students speak Spanish as their first language and more than 85 percent of  students receive free or reduced-price school lunches, no fifth-graders received six healthy scores. About 25 percent received a “need improvement” score on every measure.

Differences between the schools may contribute to the inequity:  Sycamore Elementary has “physical education specialist” who helps students train for the test. Cesar Chavez doesn’t. Sycamore does not allow cupcakes or other unhealthy treats for classroom celebrations, and fund-raising helps pay for movement classes and other fitness activities.

At Cesar Chavez, a fenced-in blacktop lot, where the basketball rims have no nets, serves as the setting for physical education classes. The school’s parents, many of whom are immigrants and some homeless, cannot afford to give money to the school.

Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, a nonprofit organization, told the reporter:  “It comes as no surprise whatsoever that such enormous inequities would be present. It is grossly unjust and will have health and economic impacts on the state of California for generations to come.”

The Bay Citizen investigation highlights an interesting, and under-reported, inequity between affluent and poor schools. With an undeniable correlation between health and school achievement, are students in lower-income schools at a disadvantage on tests and classroom performance because of a lack of adequate physical education programs?

Every state requires students to take physical fitness tests. Ask for the data from your state. Do less affluent schools score lower? If they are, what is making that difference?

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Alternative Certification Programs Might Boost Minority Teacher Ranks

A recurring theme on this blog has been the lack of minority teachers in classrooms, a particular concern given the research showing that having a teacher of the same race as students can help improve school performance.

According to this piece from KPBS in San Diego, alternative certification programs might be the key to boosting the numbers of minority teachers. These programs let aspiring teachers work in the classroom while earning certification and often draw people coming from other professional careers.

During the 2010-2011 school year, KPBS notes, about one-quarter of  students in alternative certification programs were Latino and 9 percent were African American, compared to 17 percent and 4 percent in traditional programs.

The California Teacher Corps, an association of alternative certification programs, says its members make an active effort to recruit through different communities, which helps increase the number of Latino and African-Americans seeking teaching credentials. It also helps bring in teachers from the same communities as their students.

Are alternative certification programs in your area having the same success recruiting Latino and African-American teachers? It’s worth taking a look.

Programs Signal Progress for English Language Learners

Just in time for the new year, there’s some encouraging news on the bilingual front.

First, there’s this piece from the Naples Daily News about a promising English Language Learner program in Florida’s Collier County Public School system.  The Sheltered Model pilot program, developed by the National Center for Research on Education, started in 2008 with 14 elementary schools and now includes 24 classrooms in 16 elementary schools.

Under the program, specially trained teachers work with beginning level English-speakers “by deliberately focusing on language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.” The curriculum and material are the same as those used in the other grade-level classes.

Early data show that students in the sheltered program perform better than peers who are not in a sheltered program, according to the article. District data show that students in the program increased English proficiency by 34 percent and scored higher on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test compared to ELL’s  not in the program.

The program and training were originally paid for through a $1 million federal grant

Like other school districts around the country, Collier County has a sizable population of non-English speakers. About 6,000 students are in the ELL program, and English is not the first language for about 13 percent of the district’s students. Almost half of the student population lives in homes where English is not the first language.

It would be interesting to investigate this approach further. Is it going on in other districts? If so, are they having the same success? And are there plans to expand it further?

The other intriguing bit of news comes from California, where the state announced plans to issue a “seal of biliteracy” to high school graduates who demonstrate fluency in English and another language, including American Sign Language.

According to Education Week, about 60 California school districts already issue such a seal. The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition has hailed the program.

Does this portend a trend in other states or a new appreciation of bilingualism? It could be worth monitoring.

Are Teaching Methods Keeping Up with Diverse Classrooms?

Classrooms across the country are growing more diverse, and teachers across the country are facing the challenge of meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

And each of these classrooms contains the seeds of stories examining the effects of changing student demographics.

How are teachers changing their curriculum, teaching materials and teaching methods to adapt to a more diverse population? How are schools and school districts training teachers, administrators and counselors so that they are more sensitive to a multicultural community? Where are schools falling short in meeting these needs?

This Huffington Post column, a gathering sponsored by Education Week Teacher, and the Teaching Tolerance initiative by the Southern Poverty Law Center focus on the trend and how some teachers have molded their classrooms to embrace the diversity of students — an important step toward bridging the achievement gap.

As Maureen Costello, the director of the Teaching Tolerance project, points out in the HuffPo column:

“As a nation, we’ve been staring at the achievement gap for more than a decade. Education reform efforts have focused on a host of ways to close this gap: charter schools, testing, teacher preparation, the length of the school day, data-driven assessment and so on. Researchers and educators recognize that you need to know your students to teach them – the cornerstone of culturally relevant teaching.”

This Education Week site collects information about the Teaching Tolerance project and teachers honored for their work. It’s a great jumping-off point for education reporters looking for story ideas about classroom diversity. Among the resources are panel discussions about culturally responsive teaching and background on teaching English Language Learners.

The best way to cover these issues is to spend time in classrooms coping with changing demographics and talk to teachers, parents, and students affected. What does a culturally diverse classroom look like, feel like, sound like? How does an English-speaking teacher effectively work with students whose native language is Spanish or Vietnamese? How does the school culture change when there is a demographic shift?

And what happens to students who are being taught by teachers who are not equipped to deal with the changes?

Washington Post Series Tracks a Class of Dreamers

Take some time to read this series in the Washington Post, which tracks the lives of the “Seat Pleasant 59,” who were fifth-graders in 1988 when they received a gift from two wealthy businessmen. The men promised to pay for the students’ college educations.

The series  looks at the paths taken by the students, some of whom went on to success and some of whom did not. As the first story notes:

“More than 20 years later, the answers are sometimes surprising, sometimes satisfying and sometimes heart-rending. One would become a doctor. One would become a cellist. One would become a UPS driver. One would kill herself. One would kill his father. One would become a politician. One would become a cop. One would become a drug dealer.”

For education reporters, the story is worth examining as a look at the complexity of factors that often stand between low-income, minority students and success in school, college and life. Solving those problems takes more than the offer of a free scholarship or standardized testing.

How to Break the “Blue-Collar” Ceiling for Latinos

A story in the Chicago Tribune this week recaps new research showing metro area Latinos have stayed trapped in low-skill, low-wage jobs in a handful of industries over the last decade, even though the overwhelming majority of them are American citizens. Lack of education appears to be the key factor holding them back.

A brief of the report is available here, in Latino Ed Beat’s research section.

DePaul University professor John Koval, who authored the report, told the Tribune, “These kids need to be educated and well-trained because the economy needs them so badly.”

His report notes that increasing Latinos’ access to early education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will be key steps. Working with parents and communities to change mindsets will be critical.

The Latino Policy Forum, a Chicago-based advocacy group, offers an example of how that change can happen. The forum recently announced the launch of a second year of its Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors) program, training that equips Latino parents of children under the age of five with the knowledge and confidence to support their children’s learning and advocate for them as they enter preschool and elementary school. Abriendo Puertas is being offered by 17 nonprofit agencies across metro Chicago and will reach over 500 parents by the end of 2012.

On Road to Academic Success, School Counselors Matter

How will budget cuts affect the academic achievement of Latino (and other) students?

As part of “A Day in the Life of a Classroom,” an interesting project with ethnic media outlets, New American Media examines the impact of funding cuts in classrooms. Among the issues studied are classroom size, school closings and increasing demands on teachers.

One piece looks at an often overlooked piece of the educational puzzle: school counselors. At James Lick Middle School in the San Francisco Unified School District, funding cuts resulted in the layoff of two Latino school counselors, who had made inroads in reaching out to students and their families. About 65 percent of the school’s 600 students are Latino.

The school principal noted that “she has already seen the negative effects from letting go of her Latino counselors. “(Losing) access to parents who speak Spanish only has been a major effect,” Bita Nazarian told the reporter.

Nazarian said she worries that the loss of the counselors will set back efforts to reduce suspension rates, truancy and absences. Last year, the number of suspensions at the school dropped to 79 from 168 in 2006-2007.  Truancy also fell from 30 percent in 2006-07 to about 22 percent.

At the high school level, counselors can help guide students to higher education, assist them in laying out a college-prep course of study and point them to financial aid sources. In schools where counselors are overworked or not responsive to students, many first generation college-goers can fall short of prerequisites, miss out on essential SAT or ACT tests or get lost in the college application maze. That can lead to lower college attendance rates for Latino students, whose parents may be immigrants unfamiliar with the American education system.

As school districts in your coverage area make budget decisions, examine who or what is being cut. Is the counseling staff being trimmed? What are the counselors’ student load? Does the demographic make-up of the counseling staff reflect the student demographics? Are there Spanish-speaking counselors available for non-English speaking parents?

In Tulsa, Latino Baby Boom Spurs Dual-Language Preschool

I’ve seen a number of stories about changing demographics and the rising numbers of Latino babies in locales all over the United States. Often they are contrasted with declining birth rates for non-Hispanics. But a recent story in the Tulsa World went a constructive step further to show how the demographic change is affecting policy and practice among the city’s Head Start programs.

The story tells you that a nonprofit called Community Action Project, or CAP, runs Tulsa County’s Head Start program. What it doesn’t tell you–perhaps because Tulsans know it already–is that CAP is a national leader in early education. That status adds weight to their recent decision, noted in the story, to use dual-language English-Spanish instruction in all Tulsa County Head Start programs starting next fall. Over the past five years, Hispanic enrollment in the programs has risen from 30 to 40 percent of all students. Three years ago, CAP began issuing its Head Start materials in Spanish as well as English.

Though clearly the reporter’s goal in this story was to write about the changing demographics in Tulsa and across Oklahoma, I think it would have benefitted readers to have a little more explanation of what dual-language instruction will mean in Tulsa’s Head Start programs. Will there be designated times when children and teachers speak Spanish, then English? Will one teacher speak English and another–or an assistant?–speak Spanish with children? Methodology matters in making dual-language instruction successful. Being a geek for this sort of thing, I’d also really like to know how they are training teachers to do it and whether they’ve had trouble recruiting enough Spanish-speaking teachers.

In any event.  there’s room for a follow-up story next fall when the teachers start using both languages regularly with the students. Hope the editors remember!

Community Groups Work to Boost Latino Academic Success

Schools are not the only ones trying to tackle the Latino achievement gap. Increasingly, parent and community groups are also stepping in to bolster test scores, graduation rates and academic success.

This Baltimore Sun story profiles an advocacy group called Conexiones, which was founded as an effort to stem Latino dropout rates. Board member David Rodriguez, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, works closely with the Howard County school district to help Latino students because he says “raising the bar for Hispanics will clearly help the county overall.”

Despite Howard County’s reputation for strong schools, the district’s Latino students do not score as well as their non-Latino counterparts. A major part of the group’s work involves pinpointing the factors that make students disengage from school, some of which may include “boredom, socioeconomic challenges and lack of creativity in the classroom,” the story notes.

Another piece in Hispanic Business also looks at a community group working to help Latino students, the Los Angeles Hispanic Youth Institute. The group offers academic counseling to students in underserved communities, hoping to increase the college enrollment rates in predominantly Latino neighborhoods.

The needs, the story points out, are great. As Jason Acosta, director of the Los Angeles Hispanic Youth Institute, tells Hispanic Business that “[s]ome of our students are just beginning to understand the significance of their GPAs, and that a ‘D’ is not going to count towards their Cal State or UC applications, even though it will allow them to graduate from high school.”

Both stories point out the value of mining community groups as sources for school-related stories. Often, those groups and advocates can provide story fodder for pieces examining the obstacles faced by Latino students, as well as offering tips that lead to stories about student success. They can also have insight into how well — or how poorly — school systems are doing in working with Latino students.

They also highlight the importance of looking at the factors leading to poor scores or low graduation rates, such as lack of academic counseling, socioeconomic issues or lack of challenging curriculum.

What Third Grade Reading Says About High School Graduation

Here in Chicago last week, the Latino Policy Forum and Advance Illinois co-hosted a breakfast discussion with Donald Hernandez, a sociologist with Hunter College, City University of New York, about his recent research showing that children’s reading prowess in third grade strongly predicts whether or not they will graduate from high school. A small group of educators, policy analysts and foundation officers used the findings as a springboard to talk about what can be done in Illinois to increase the number of students reading proficiently by third grade, especially among Latinos and English-language learners.

Hernandez stated the main point of his research succinctly: “Lack of reading proficiency compounds the effect of poverty on graduation rates.” In other words, children who have spent even one year of their lives in poverty are less likely to graduate from high school than children who come from more affluent families. When children in poverty can’t read well by third grade, their chances of graduating from high school shrink even more.

Those gathered at the meeting discussed a number of strategies that could reduce the number of children in this kind of “double jeopardy.” A critical piece would be not only developing more and better early childhood programs–especially in the underserved Latino neighborhoods of Chicago and its suburbs–but also connecting those programs to K-3 in neighborhood public schools so that children’s early learning gains don’t fade out once they start elementary school. Illinois is working on changing its teacher licensing system to align better from pre-K through 3rd grade and also retooling principal preparation to ensure elementary school principals better understand how to work with early educators.

On a parallel track, the group discussed the importance of helping families engage in their children’s early learning.  Hernandez’s report recommends using “two-generation” strategies to educate parents and ensure families have access to health insurance so their children can get help with developmental delays as well as routine health conditions.

Some story ideas occurred to me as I listened to the discussion:

1. Spend two days with two early educators with similar credentials working with similar students but in different settings. For example,  watch an early educator working in an elementary school’s state pre-kindergarten program and compare her day–class size, curriculum and her pay–to that of an early educator working with four-year-olds in a private,  licensed daycare center who is likely making a lot less money. How similar are the experiences for the children? How do differences in pay and working conditions affect the early educators’ views of their jobs?

2. Talk with stay-at-home Latina moms to find out why their children are or are not in preschool. While there’s a common perception that Latino families want to keep their children at home for cultural reasons, Latino Policy Forum’s Sylvia Puente calls that a myth and cites research showing that most if not all the differential in Latino preschool enrollment can be explained by economics. Puente cites the popularity of half-day preschool run by Through A Child’s Eyes in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill. as an example to break the stereotype.

3. Reporters can look at teacher licensing issues by talking with elementary school teachers and principals about current staffing practices, which sometimes call for upper elementary teachers (6-8) to come back down to K-3. Or the reverse: I can recall one occasion when a kindergarten teacher was reassigned to 8th grade math following a wholesale shakeup of the school’s faculty. What age groupings make the most sense to working teachers and principals, and are those groupings the ones favored by policymakers? Here in Illinois, the issue of licensing is becoming even more complicated with the recent state rule that preschool teachers working with large numbers of English-language learners must have a bilingual teaching credential.