About Monica Rhor

I'm a journalist who has covered education, immigration, and Latino issues for the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Press and Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to Latina Magazine and the Houston Chronicle. I'm also an educator with experience teaching English and Journalism.

Ban of an Ethnic Studies Program in Arizona Sparks Debate

One of the challenges presented by the growing diversification of the country’s student population is how best to incorporate culturally relevant material into the standard curriculum. Educational research and classroom evidence show that students are more engaged and learn better when they can personally relate to the subject matter. For example, if students in a class are predominantly Latino, stories about Sally and Bob probably won’t grab their attention as well as stories about Marisol and Joaquin.

However, there also is debate over whether a culturally relevant curriculum can end up promoting resentment and reinforcing social stratification. That debate is at the heart of an ongoing controversy in Arizona, where the Tucson school district’s ethnic studies program has been under fire. Last week, an Arizona administrative law judge ruled that the program violates a state law banning divisive ethnic studies classes, backing an earlier ruling by the state’s superintendent of public instruction.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Arizona public schools chief John Huppenthal had concluded that the program violated the law, which bans classes primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” A Huffington Post piece notes that “Huppenthal has 30 days to accept, reject or modify the ruling. If he accepts the judge’s decision, the district has about 30 days to appeal the ruling in Superior Court.”

Opponents say such programs promote victimhood; advocates say they simply teach parts of American history and culture left out of the mainstream curriculum.

A pending case in federal court challenges the constitutionality of the state law, and a group of teachers and students have requested an injunction to stop an implementation of the ban.

Regardless of the outcome, the Arizona controversy highlights the difficulty of adjusting the curriculum to match student demographics. If school districts in your area are creating ethnic studies programs, how are they balancing the offerings? Have there been protests or concerns on either side? What evidence – anecdotal or research-based –have you found that the programs help or hurt students?

On a side note, this will be my last post for the Latino Ed Beat, as I am returning to the newsroom full-time as an education reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Thanks for reading my thoughts on education coverage. I hope you’ll continue to check the blog for ideas and inspiration. I know I will.


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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.