Parents Want Their Kids to Speak Spanish, Too

Amid all the coverage of English Language Learner programs and whether they are successful in teaching English to Spanish-language speakers, one issue often gets lost. Namely, how to preserve heritage languages in the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Recent studies have shown that Latino students who maintain strong ties to the cultural and linguistic heritage of their parents often do better academically than those who do not.

This Washington Post piece examines the dilemma of parents trying to teach their children Spanish in an English-speaking society. It’s a daunting task. As the article notes:

“Despite parents’ and grandparents’ best efforts, ‘Spanish appears to draw its last breath in the third generation,’ said Ruben Rumbaut, professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, a leading expert in the survival rates of immigrant languages. He calls the United States ‘the world’s largest language graveyard’ because of the cultural power of American English.”

Some Latino parents are trying to prevent that linguistic demise by enrolling children in dual-language schools, speaking to them only in Spanish, hiring Spanish-speaking nannies and seeking out games that help nurture the language. The parents quoted in the article note that keeping Spanish alive is about more than just language: It is also a way to keep a connection to the Latino culture. “I wanted my children to know this is not just their mom’s weird background,” Pilar O’Leary told the Post. “I wanted them to know this language connects to this amazing culture, all these significant artists and cultural heroes.”

Schools are also following the trend by offering more “heritage speaker” classes for native speakers of other languages.

Finding parents and kids who are making efforts to keep Spanish alive in their households provides a unique angle for coverage of the debate over bilingual programs. It would also be revealing to find schools that offer heritage language classes and to look at the effectiveness of those programs.

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Arizona Republic Looks at the Lives of Undocumented Students

One of the greatest challenges for reporters covering Latino issues can be finding ways to write about the undocumented immigrant community without relying on statistics, studies or simple generalizations. It can be difficult, even close to impossible, to gain access to people whose very survival depends on their ability to live in the shadows.

Yet humanizing that population is essential to thorough coverage, especially for education writers. The growing presence of undocumented students and the hurdles they face is a key component of the schools beat.

This week, Arizona Republic reporter John Faherty provided an outstanding example of reporting that goes beyond the surface of this issue and delves deep into the lives of those affected in his narrative piece “On Their Own.” The story documents the day-to-day existence of three undocumented Arizona high school students, following them through their senior year in high school and into the beginning of life after graduation.

Faherty relies on the stories of the three boys, who shared a ragged trailer and are forced to cope with the fallout from Arizona’s harsh immigration law SB 1070, to illuminate the human side of the issue that is often lost amid political debate. The article is a powerful reminder of the value of gleaning story ideas and tips from those on the ground floor, the strength of letting our subjects’ lives speak for themselves, and the need to dig for the real story behind the statistics.

Faherty is a general assignment reporter who first began working in newspapers in 1987, then switched to television as a reporter and producer for about 15 years. He returned to newspapers to newspapers about eight years ago. I asked him to share some insight and background about the piece and the reporting it entailed.

Could you explain the genesis of the story? How did the idea for profiling the students come about?

Like a lot of the best stories, this one was found by a photographer.  The teacher at the school who was/is closest to the boys, Jane McNamara, is the mother of a photographer here on staff.  Her son told another photographer, Cheryl Evans. Cheryl and I have worked closely on some big projects in the past, so she talked to me about it.  We both knew immediately that this story had a chance to be terrific. Our editors, fortunately, agreed. 

How did you find the students? What obstacles did you encounter and how did you get around them? 

We were expecting a major obstacle from their school, North High School. So very early on, we set up a meeting with the principal, vice principal and the district’s public information officer. Honestly, they could not have been more accommodating. We were so lucky. We needed to check at the front office whenever we went to the school, but that was our only limitation. We were never shadowed or anything. They just let us work. (Our only limitation – a perfectly reasonable one – was to not photograph other students.)

How was the reporting done? Did you spend time shadowing the three boys or did you reconstruct the action through interviews? What advantages/disadvantages did either method present?

We spent a year with these kids. I made a point of seeing them at least once a week for the whole year. So the story only included three instances of reconstruction. The rest was direct observation. The advantages were almost too numerous to count.  But, certainly, the fact that they became very comfortable with us was important. They became so accustomed to us that they really became themselves.   Plus we got to see them change and evolve over a year. Also, my editor, Josh Susong, had the brilliant idea of me writing something akin to a diary along the way. Each week, I would transfer my notes into a journal. At the end, that made the process so much easier.

What were you hoping the story would show? 

I don’t have a good answer to that question. I guess I just wanted to show what life is like for a slice of our community.

What kind of response did you get?

Overwhelming positive. When you write about illegal immigration for The Arizona Republic, you typically get a lot of feedback from readers. Often it is strongly felt and critical. Not for this story. I received a gazillion phone calls and emails. Many asked how they could help these kids/young men.

In Chicago, STEM Helps Latino Students Grow Academically

Does drumming up interest in STEM careers — science, technology, engineering and math — hold a key to improving Latino achievement in school?

In Chicago, a growing number of educators think it does. According to this Chicago Tribune piece, teachers looking for ways to reverse Latino dropout rates, curb absenteeism and increase college enrollment are turning to math and science. At Nobel Elementary School, principal Manuel Adrianzen took a group of 6th to 8th grade girls to a workshop exploring the STEM fields. At Salazar Bilingual Center, a Pre-K-through-8th-grade school, the curriculum centers around  demanding math and science classes. (About 80 percent of the school’s students are English language learners.) In a second and third-grade class there, students constructed a roller coaster model for one project and got a pre-Thanksgiving lesson in composting. The school has also teamed up with the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, where students can “conduct experiments, mingle with science professionals and take frequent field trips to the museum,” according to the Tribune article.

Similar efforts are cropping up in other parts of the country. The Latino STEM Alliance, for example, connects professionals or STEM majors with Latino students.

It would be interesting to see what is being done in your area to increase Latino interest in STEM careers and majors and whether those programs are effective in increasing school success.

Do Older Siblings Help Preschoolers Learn English?

Last week I received a press release announcing that two researchers from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education had won a $40,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation to study language acquisition in Latino preschoolers. The study is already under way, and the researchers were willing to share some preliminary findings from their work via email.

The study is tracking more than 100 Latino families with young children in central Virginia. The researchers, Amanda Kibler and Natalia Palacios, are using observations, interviews and standard tests of early language development to assess the youngsters’ language progress in both English and Spanish. The Spencer grant will support more home observations plus at least one year of school observations once the children start kindergarten.

A key aspect of the home observations will focus on how young children with older siblings (school-age and using English) acquire and use language, Kibler said via email. Kibler says currently very little research exists to document how older siblings affect language acquisition and use among Latino children. I’m glad to see researchers tackling this questions. Just observationally, around my neighborhood it seems pretty clear to me that Latino children with school-age siblings who speak English acquire and use English more rapidly than those without,  but I’m not a researcher.

Another preliminary finding shows a link between children sleeping an extra hour at night and having bedtime stories read to them in Spanish by their mothers. So far, the same association is not apparent with English reading. Kibler says the finding suggests some Spanish-speaking recent immigrants are using night-time routines as an opportunity for structured reading but couldn’t say more.  Though I know correlation doesn’t equal causation, I’m tempted to stress Spanish language stories at bedtime (usually we read in both languages) and see if my son will sleep longer!

Lawsuit Claims Florida Tuition Policy Is Discriminatory

A recently filed lawsuit highlights a very real hurdle facing some Latino students with college aspirations.

As this WSVN-TV piece and New York Times blog explain, the suit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of five Florida students who were born in the United States, yet were charged higher tuition because they could not provide proof of their parents’ legal status and were classified as non-residents. The policy affects students who want to attend a public college or university in Florida, are under 24, and are claimed as dependents on their parents’ income tax returns.

Filed against Florida education officials, the suit claims that the policy is discriminatory and has resulted in overcharging hundreds of students or forcing others to leave school because they could not afford the tuition. The suit asks the Federal District Court to rule that the practice is unconstitutional.

The price difference between in-state and non-resident tuition is considerable: at the University of Florida, residents pay $5,700 a year versus $27,936 for non-residents.

As a community college instructor, I have seen firsthand the financial straits many students face. For some of my students, the price of a textbook can sometimes be insurmountable. Overcoming a $22,000 difference effectively would be impossible.

Four of the plaintiffs were born in Miami and one in Los Angeles. As the New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse notes all of them would be “eligible to be president of the United States.”

Study Highlights Academic Hurdles Latino Students Face

A new report looking at Latino achievement levels from the Council of the Great City Schools covers some familiar territory: lower reading proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, greater dropout rates and risks, lower levels of “readiness to learn.”

But “Today’s Promise, Tomorrow’s Future: The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Hispanics in Urban Schools” also includes some interesting tidbits that often escape the scrutiny of education reporters.

According to the report, Latino students take fewer Advanced Placement courses and score lower on SAT and ACT exams, putting them at greater risk of not getting into college. For example, only 20 percent of Latinos took an AP exam in 2010, compared to 60 percent of white students.

Since college recruiters are increasingly considering AP classes and exam scores as criteria for admission, the lack of advanced courses can pose major obstacles for students planning to go to college. Are Latino students simply not enrolling in available classes, or do the schools they attend not offer AP courses? Do their families lack the money for exam fees? If so, do schools offer financial help for struggling students?

The report also looks at “school experience,” finding that Latino students are “less likely to participate in academic clubs, more likely to be suspended from school, and more likely to be retained in a grade than their White peers.” In addition, Latino students were more likely to work more than 20 hours per week than their classmates.

Once again, these factors can play a major role in postsecondary options. Extracurricular, community-service and other school-related activities are often key in gaining admission to a selective college. If Latino students are not engaged in those activities, they can be at a disadvantage when it comes to applying to college.

Likewise, working long hours can result in lower school performance and less time for those prized extracurricular activities. One way to illustrate the hurdles many Latino students face might be to simply shadow a student during a typical school day or school week. Are they juggling work, school and family responsibilities? If college is a goal, what is standing in the way? What kind of help is available?