The Challenge for Latino Children in Illinois

The Chicago Public Schools have faced numerous difficulties in the past year: school closures, neighborhood violence and persistently high dropout rates. Latino children make up about 44 percent of the district’s enrollment.

On the Huffington Post Latino Voices blog, Latino Policy Forum Executive Director Sylvia Puente writes about the conditions in Chicago and Illinois, noting last year’s struggles.

“The eyes of the nation were fixed on our corner of Illinois — not just to follow the controversy, but also because as one of the country’s global, diverse cities, Chicago is [a] litmus test of educational realities across the country,” she writes.

Puente writes that improving outcomes for Latino children depends on increasing access to quality preschool programs. Additionally, as Illinois phases in required bilingual education for English Language Learners in preschool, more training is needed for teachers. Lastly, Latino students need access to quality teachers and more Latino teachers.

“Understanding the issues is step one,” Puente writes. “But action — in the form of investments in increased access to quality early care and education in Latino neighborhoods, resources for teachers to pursue linguistic credentials, and strong teacher preparation programs that encourage diverse talent in the profession — is critical, in Chicago, in Illinois, and across the country.”

Read more here.

Related Links:

– “Chicago’s Next Education Crisis Isn’t Limited to Chicago — Here’s Why,” The Huffington Post Latino Voices.

– Latino Policy Forum.

Latino Children Hurt by Chicago Teachers’ Strike

With her two daughters kept out of school because of the Chicago teachers strike, Patricia Rodriguez was left with no other option than to take them with her to her job at a local laundromat this week. The Chicago teachers’ strike affected nearly 180,000 Latino children enrolled in the school district, many from disadvantaged families, Fox News Latino reports.

“I’m lucky that I can take them to work with me because they can sit in the chairs, but I know that families had to leave kids home alone today or stay home and miss work to be with them and that’s not fair,” Rodriguez told Fox, of her 8- and 13-year old daughters. “The teachers want more and more money and while they fight for that, it’s us, the parents, that are spending money today that we don’t have either. It’s not a big thing today but what about tomorrow and next week if they don’t go back?”

The news outlet reported that both girls said they’d prefer being at class to hanging out at the laundromat.

Many education policy experts are lamenting the negative impact on the mostly low-income Latino and black families missing out on school. Every day counts for such children.

Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution wrote that poor students couldn’t afford to miss class. He noted that research has shown that teacher absenteeism–leaving students with substitute teachers– has a negative impact on academic performance. Being out of the school during the summer can also put students behind.

“In other words, the consequence of being out of school is to increase the already unacceptable large achievement gap between low-income students and their affluent peers,” writes Chingos.

The Education Trust also released a statement from Vice President Amy Wilkins calling the effect on the district’s poor, mostly Latino and black students, “tragic.”

“This strike needs to end now,” she wrote. “And the agreement that ends it needs to be one that creates conditions to boost Chicago’s dismal achievement, particularly among its low-income students.”

An article in The Huffington Post noted that the strike could prompt more Latino families to consider enrolling their children in charter schools, which are still open during the strike.

However, up until this point not as many Hispanics have chosen charter schools, said Juan Rangel, the CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization. UNO runs a group of charter schools in Illinois, and serves more than half of Latino children attending Illinois charters. Many are English language learners.

“”I think part of the problem is charters across the country have not been able to attract a lot of Hispanic students and English language learners,” Rangel said.

Related Links:

– “Chicago Teachers Strike Hits Latino Families Hard.” Fox News Latino.

– “Charter School Options for Latinos Gain Attention Due to Chicago Teachers’ Strike.” The Huffington Post. 

– “In Chicago, Latino students and families brace for teachers’ strike.” NBC Latino.

Report Outlines Education Agenda for Latino Students in Illinois

Nearly one in four Illinois public school students is Latino. And their story is no longer confined to the Chicago Public Schools, where Hispanics are 43 percent of the enrollment. Most of the  state’s Latino student population is now in the suburbs and rural areas.

new report by the Latino Policy Forum lays out the challenges facing the population. Only one in three Latinos are enrolled in preschool. By the time they reach the third grade, these Latino students lag white students by 31 percentage points in reading scores.  English Language Learners, 86 percent of whom speak Spanish, lag 48 points in reading by third grade.

“Such statistics are alarming, and these trends left unchecked will have devastating implications for Illinois: ensuring positive outcomes for their community is no longer simply a Latino issue,” the Shaping Our Future report says. “The well-being of Latinos–whose population has increased by nearly 500,000 over the last decade–is inextricably linked to the well-being of all of Illinois?”

So, what can be done?

The report identifies areas of interest and specific action items to be taken on:

Raising Academic and Instructional Standards:

The report suggests providing linguistically appropriate tests for students, such as increasing students’ time to take tests and allowing students to respond in Spanish. In addition, it advises that students complete college prep coursework and be provided programs such as dual-language instruction.

Preparing Teachers and Academic Leadership:

The Forum urges racial diversity among the teacher and administrator workforce. It urges that bilingual and mainstream teachers have proper training to deal with the diverse student population. In addition, it seeks to promote Latino students’ access to highly qualified teachers.

Addressing Funding and Facility Concerns.

The state’s heavy dependency on property taxes to fund schools has perpetuated continued unequal funding districts, with high-minority districts receiving about $1,595 less per student than low-minority districts. The Forum promotes advocating for increased funding and new strategies for distributing funds. In addition, it suggests building schools to be able to prevent overcrowding and increasing students’ access to technology.

Fostering Partners in Education.

The organization has planned the Acuerdo group geared at bringing Latino organizations and leaders together to advocate for the community’s needs and push initiatives forward.

Partners with schools, classrooms and school districts can include community-based organizations, foundations, businesses, faith-based organizations, health organizations and families. They can provide resources for issues such as funding support and providing support such as gang prevention programs.

The report also stresses the importance of family involvement initiatives, such as sharing with parents school information such as the benefits of preschool. Schools can also be educated themselves about how to go back to school and learn English. In addition, the report points out that suburbs often have fewer community organizations that provide services than Chicago, and are in need of more partners.


The Latino Policy Forum also hosted a discussion today along with leaders from the National Council of La Raza, Chicago Public Schools and Illinois State Board of Education in conjunction with the report’s release. WestEd’s Aida Walqui, an expert on ELLs, also spoke about the common core standards.

Related Links:

– “Shaping Our Future: Building a Collective Latino K-12 Education Agenda.” Latino Policy Forum. 

– Education Acuerdo

Latino Policy Forum

Report Calls on Schools to Meet the Needs of ELL Pre-K Students

A new report by the Center for American Progress  calls on federal, state and local leaders to meet the needs of preschool students who are English language learners by providing dual-language services.

The study says there is a need to increase the numbers of bilingual teaching staff to better serve Hispanic, low-income children entering programs unable to speak English. It cites Head Start principles that focus on supporting a child’s native language while introducing English. “To be clear, we recognize that early childhood programs must focus on English language competency to ensure school readiness,” the report notes. “But rigorous research indicates that helping children improve their home-language skills can markedly augment and support English-language competency.”

The report also cited a 2009 longitudinal study of four-year-olds by the National Center for Education Statistics that found that Hispanic children lagged behind Asian, white and black children in basic letter and number recognition.  About 23 percent of Hispanic 4-year-olds were proficient at recognizing letters, compared with 37 percent of white children. And 51 percent of Hispanic children were proficient at recognizing numbers and shapes, compared with 73 percent of white children.

Some states are making efforts to address ELLs. Illinois requires bilingual preschool, and 27 other states allow bilingual pre-K classes. But state standards vary widely. According to the report, eight states require early education providers to write a plan for dealing with ELLs and 17 states require providers to screen and assess ELL students. The study points out that the states don’t specify how the children should be assessed and only Delaware requires the assessment to be done in the child’s home language.

Increasing dual-language services was just one of 10 education reforms the study calls for. The list also includes improving early childhood data and partnering with states to align their early learning standards.

Related Links:

“Increasing the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Existing Public Investments in Early Childhood Education.” Center for American Progress.

“Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness,” Head Start.

“Starting Early With English Language Learners: First Lessons from Illinois.” New America Foundation. 

College Scholarship Programs Can Make a Difference for Latinos

The end of the school year is my favorite time to write–not because I’m looking forward to a slow summer, but because so many inspirational stories seem to crop up all at once. As high school graduation closes in, stories about young people overcoming adversity to reach their academic potential are in high demand from editors.

I’ve found several inspirational students to write about over the years through a couple of organizations that are making a difference for many young Latinos and financially challenged young people.

First, the QuestBridge program “matches” low-income students with elite universities to provide a fully paid college education. I once wrote an article about a young man from the Dallas suburbs who was matched with Princeton University. His parents, immigrants from Mexico, had not even completed elementary school.

A second option is the Gates Millennium Scholars program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The organization offers fully paid tuition, in some cases through graduate school, to qualified low-income, minority students. Gates scholar Rodrigo Fernandez, who ranked first in his high school class at Simon Rivera High School in Brownsville, Texas, explained to The Brownsville Herald how the Gates scholarship lifted pressure off him. “The day I got it I was really happy because I knew that now I could focus on my studies without having to worry about everything else, that I could stop worrying about the money and other financial things,” said Fernandez, who will attend the University of Texas at Austin and whose older sister also won the award.

I’m not suggesting that you simply write a straight news piece about someone winning the award. If you delve deeper into their life story, you may find a strong narrative story to tell.

It’s also important to ask who are the counselors who are identifying and guiding students toward applying for these scholarships? The process of writing essays and requesting recommendations can be time-consuming. The difference between students who win these awards and the talented ones who don’t can be due to the quality of advising, and that’s unfortunate.

A few years ago, I presented on a panel at the Education Writers Association conference about “undermatching.” The term refers to how many young minority and low-income students often set their goals too low and are qualified to enroll in more academically rigorous colleges than they actually apply to.

As reporters, we should keep an eye out for schools that are doing a better job of guiding young people toward these opportunities. We should also ask why so many schools are failing to offer that support.

Arizona Education Chief Critical of University Mexican American Studies Programs

With the Tucson Public Schools’ Mexican American Studies program now dismantled, Arizona Superintendent of Schools John Huppenthal is considering a new battle.

Fox News Latino reports that Huppenthal blames Mexican American Studies programs at universities for educating the teachers who taught in the Tucson program. “I think that’s where this toxic thing starts from, the universities,” he said. “To me, the pervasive problem was the lack of balance going on in these classes.” He has said the Tucson classes encouraged students to resent whites, and he fought successfully for their removal from the curriculum.

Huppenthal is a member of Arizona’s Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities. Professors are now concerned that he might target their courses next. For example, the University of Arizona in Tucson has a Mexican American Studies program. “It’s an affront to freedom of speech,” that program’s director, Antonio Estrada, told Fox News Latino. “We do not indoctrinate; we educate. Academic freedom will be lost if these programs are not sustained at the university level.”

The program’s website states that it is committed to public policy research on Mexican Americans. It was created in 1981, years after students first protested and demanded its creation in 1968. “As the leading public policy research center addressing issues of concerns to this minority group in Arizona, the Department works collaboratively with key community agencies in promoting leadership and empowerment of Mexican Americans within the state and nation,” the site says.

In your home communities, do school districts or universities offer similar courses, and are they being criticized as is the case in Arizona? What sort of curriculum do they use? What do students think of these courses? I’d like to learn more about what the students feel they gain from such programs. Especially for Hispanic students, how important is it to read literature written by authors who are of the same ethnic background?

Many Suburban Chicago Schools Fail to Provide Bilingual Programs

Many suburban Chicago school districts are failing to provide bilingual education programs as required by state law, a recent Catalyst Chicago analysis shows.

Illinois law requires that schools with 20 or more students sharing the same native language must offer a bilingual education program to qualified students. Catalyst found that between 2009 and 2011, of 58 suburban districts visited by monitors, about 40 percent–or 22 districts– failed to provide a bilingual program. None met all requirements for serving English language learners. These results are important because the majority of the state’s Latinos now live in the suburbs.

According to coverage by the Chicago News Cooperative:

Compliance problems included bilingual courses taught by teachers who lacked required language or subject-matter certification, classes with substandard content, and failure to make yearly assessments of how well students are learning English.

Many of the suburbs struggle to find enough certified bilingual teachers. Some have turned to sheltered English instruction for English language learners. There are some successful dual-language instruction programs, but teacher shortages limit the expansion of those.

“There is a lot of hardship on some districts to comply where there are newer populations” of English-language learners, Reyna Hernandez told the Chicago News Cooperative. She is assistant superintendent of the Center for Language and Early Childhood Development at the Illinois State Board of Education.

Catalyst reports that the state is considering changes that could reduce the number of schools requiring certified bilingual teachers and that would reduce instruction in the native language taking place in bilingual programs.

If you’d like to learn more about the state of bilingual education in Illinois, Catalyst has posted a series of articles on the topic online. The stories point out issues with bilingual programs in the Chicago Public Schools. Namely, that some children aren’t becoming English proficient even after spending years in the program. So even when bilingual education programs are offered as required by law, they’re not necessarily without flaws.

You can check in your state whether districts are meeting all requirements for serving English language learners. The state department of education should have this information.

Also, if your state offers bilingual classes, is there a shortage of qualified teachers and–if so–how is the shortage being addressed? Some districts have been known to bring teachers from Puerto Rico, Mexico or Spain to teach students. Others offer pay stipends of several thousand dollars to entice applicants.

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.

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?

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.