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Latino Student Achievement: Understanding and Approaching the Related Education Challenges

April 9th, 2014 by bmason145

(To see supplementary presentation PDF, visit the following link: Latino Students in Rhode Island: A Review of Local and National Performances)

As part of some of our most recent initiatives, the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University has been invited to present, at a variety of venues, our recent education presentation: Latino Students in Rhode Island: A Review of Local and National Performances. Specifically, the presentation highlights notable evidence -- extracted from both LPI’s personal research (see LPI's "Reports" page to see a brief description of LPI's 2013 education report and to submit a publication request) as well as supplementary sources (for example, Patricia Gándara's article "The Crisis in the Education of Latino Students") —regarding notable statistics, related achievement-gap challenges, and, subsequently, solution-based recommendations and considerations.

Below is a narrative written and presented, alongside the presentation mentioned above, by LPI Director Anna Cano-Morales, on Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Rhode Island College as part of their Dialogue on Diversity Committe's Spring Lecture Series -- an event co-sponsored by Feinstein School of Education and Human Development. In this peice, Cano-Morales contributes a personal element synonymously with a review of the related research. Subsequently, Cano-Morales discusses the Central Falls School District/Rhode Island College Innovation Lab partnership: 

"I first want to share the story of a young student, a warrior in spirit.   

She was born in Central Falls to Colombian immigrant parents.  By default, language immersion was her first experience learning, as she was one of only a few Latino students in the local parochial school at that time. She did not attend Preschool or Head Start -- and, she arguably cried more than any other student in her first grade class.  During the day, she did her best to keep up with her school work, knowing that her success in 'English' school needed to be matched by her success in her 'Spanish speaking' home.  She learned, at a young age, how to problem solve and navigate systems. However, these systems often generated obstacles of which impeded her progress: often, they tripped her as she was trying to walk between the two worlds. Eventually, she was able to become fully bilingual: this was absent an ESL or bilingual program — in fact, she had no idea that she was even an English Language Learner at all. 

In general, she was haunted by the fact that her parents gave up everything to work in factories, just so that she wouldn’t have to the same. And oftentimes, working in factories was not enough to meet her family’s basic human needs. She was also affected by seeing some of her childhood peers who were less motivated lose interest in school or in themselves altogether.  She knew that she had talent and goals but sometimes lacked the self-confidence to take the necessary risks. She became self-doubting, anxious, isolated, and frustrated. Some of those insecurities were fed by soft bigotry and micro -aggressions, sometimes of which were aimed at her by those who did not see her value. 

With time, however, she learned to rely on teachers and mentors that both guided her to reach higher with her academics and who often proved to be valuable resources. She also leaned heavily on her parents who instilled strong and positive values, even when the times were tough. She learned to find strength in reading — not for herself, but for her mother who had a very limited formal education. Ultimately, she learned to code-switch language, ideas, content, norms, cultures, and expectations. She learned to question and look for solutions that helped her succeed. The young girl was self-motivated by the heavy load on her shoulders placed there by her birth order: the youngest and First Generation. She excelled and grew up to be the first person in her family to speak English and to graduate from high school, and then college, and now has made advocacy her life’s work.  She is standing here today, as your keynote speaker – she is me.  I chose to share part of my story because for many students currently in our public schools, they share my same self-doubt, frustrations, hardships, and struggles.  In telling my story, I am telling you their story, too.  Fortunately, I had a strong support system – but what happens to those that do not?  What happens to students who do not actualize – or even realize – their warrior potential?   

How do educators play a role in this awakening? How can we all see education differently without compromising the fundamental core value education? 

At the Latino Policy Institute (LPI) @RWU we are committed to generating and communicating non-partisan data of Latinos in Rhode Island. The LPI stimulates public policy discourse and enhances the public's understanding of the Rhode Island Latino experience. With this information, Latinos’ social, economic and civic contributions to the state can be better documented, understood and engaged. LPI has released several reports on education; instate tuition for undocumented students, housing affordability for Latinos and workforce participation of Latinos. Why focus on just this population? Because it is the fasted growing population in the state and country and they are the predominant consumers of public education in the urban communities.

Several critically important findings emerged from the 2013 Latino Policy Institute exploratory study, which examined the academic achievement of Latino students in Rhode Island.

  • Latino-White achievement gaps in RI are some of the worst in the country.  Latino students score between 20 and 30 points – the equivalent of two to three grade levels of learning – behind their White counterparts in mathematics, and approximately one to two grade levels behind in reading.
  • Latino student achievement in RI lags notably behind national averages.  Latinos in RI score half to one full grade level behind Latinos nationally on several measures, and in some cases RI ranks as low as 40th and 41st among states in Latino student performance.
  • RI is facing a crisis in ELL education.  Latino students make up approximately 75% of all ELLs in public schools, and are among some of the lowest performing ELLs in the nation, even ranking last in eighth grade mathematical achievement.  
  • Economic differences are most likely contributing to achievement disparities. In the state, Latino family median annual earnings are half of those of White families. Moreover, median Latino family earnings in RI are 26% lower than the national Latino median.
  • Urban school experiences likely contribute to Latino achievement gaps.  The achievement disparities between Latinos nationally and those in RI are specific to urban districts – such differences are essentially non-existent in suburban schools, or in schools with fewer Latinos.
  • Latinos are vastly underrepresented in RI teaching and administrative forces.  Statewide, Latinos represent 1–3% of the teaching and administrative forces in RI schools, while Latinos comprise 22% of Latino students statewide.
  • RI’s high level of first generation Latinos relates directly to problems with ELL education in RI.  Nationally, approximately 7.3% of all Latinos under age 18 were born outside of the United States; in RI that number is significantly higher, at 11.8%.  This higher percentage of foreign-born Latino students and parents in the state raises the ELL needs of a system that is already stretched.
  • Latino students have a dropout rate of 19.7%, while White students have a dropout rate of 9.5%.

The LPI report also proposed several recommendations:

  • Re-envision ELL programming and instruction in urban core districts, and districts with high ELL populations. This requires:
    • The development of a strategic vision and long-term plan for meeting ELL needs
    • Increased utilization of differentiated instruction, as guided by student language competencies in their native language or English
    • Improving ELL student access to the district’s general and advanced curricula
    • Improving the quality of ELL program evaluations, as well as assessments for ELL students
    • Improving the high rate of turnover in district leadership
  • Improve ELL programming in the core urban districts through the creation of a state-wide inter-district ELL task force to leverage and centralize established best practices.  General district-level recommendations are as follows:
    • Clear instructional vision and high expectations for ELL’s
    • Empowerment of the ELL offices
    • Systematic use of student subgroup data
    • Cultivate key instructional capacities among teachers and administrators
  • Orient the Rhode Island Department of Education more explicitly toward racial equity and ELL student performance.  This may require a three-fold approach:
    • First, priorities around equity, culturally relevant teaching practice, and specific goals for students of different cultural backgrounds should explicitly accompany the existing rhetoric around excellence for all in the state-level priorities
    • Second, an equity focus may also specifically include extracting ELL student services from the oversight of the Office of Student, Community, and Academic Supports, where ELL student needs are grouped with students who have other, distinct needs; ELL students may be better served by being provided with attention to their specific linguistic and cultural needs
    • Given the rising profile of Latino students in Rhode Island, RIDE should consider establishing an office that is solely focused on alleviating racial achievement disparities where they exist in relation to RI schools
  • Increase the number of teachers and administrators with social backgrounds similar to Latino students.
    • Research suggests that having teachers of the same race bolsters achievement and is related to students being enrolled in higher courses. Importantly, having more Latino teachers also means having more Spanish-speaking faculty who understand the social conditions of students and their families like for example Lisette Castrillon who is taking Graduate courses in the study of Bilingual Education. She is an education professional who wants to learn all she can about how to be an effective educator. And, she is product of our community.
  • Create professional development initiatives that utilize the great work of local schools that are currently succeeding with urban Latino and ELL populations.  There are several schools throughout the state that are producing commendable results with Latino and ELL populations in both the core urban municipal and charter districts.  For example:
    • Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence was once one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the state. Today, employing a combination of technology, direct, personal instruction, small, student groups, and collaboration with numerous community partners, third-grade math scores have improved by 21 percentage points, while reading is up 6 percentage points – all in just three years.
    • International Charter School in Pawtucket modeling two-way dual language models that use content to teach language in a culturally diverse setting.
  • Develop a school culture that fosters positive relationships and personalized educational experiences for all students.  Research also shows that encouragement and connectedness are particularly important to the success of Black and Latino students in urban schools.  Strong cultures of connectedness and achievement will propel Latino student success and narrow achievement gaps.
  • Ensure state-of-the art instruction and instructional leadership in the core urban districts, for all students, schools, and classrooms.  Key components of this effort are recruiting and retaining the most capable teachers to our urban districts, and also implementing professional development initiatives that have proven to be effective in promoting differentiated instruction techniques among all students.

In Central Falls, we are not standing still. We are certainly changing some statistics. Just yesterday, it was announced that five Rhode Island public schools have been invited to represent their state at a regional conference, High School Redesign in Action, on effective strategies for improving teaching and learning in the 21st century.

They are Central Falls High School, Coventry High School, Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School in Coventry, Cumberland High School and Westerly High School.

The conference, is a two-day event is sponsored by the New England Secondary School Consortium, a state-led regional partnership committed to high school innovation, in collaboration with the departments of education for Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

All the selected schools have made significant progress raising student achievement, graduation rates, college-enrollment numbers, or other indicators of educational success. Woot Woot!

Let’s take a look at data specific to CFSD, which has been undergoing a major educational reform since 2010. According to the 2013 report, Central Falls High School Transformation Study, conducted by the Education Alliance and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University:

  • The four-year graduation rate rose from 48% for the class of 2009 to 70% for the class of 2010. Our 5 yr graduation is 83% but that doesn’t count….or does it? It does to us!
  • Central Falls High School NECAP mathematics proficiency rates doubled from 7% in 2011 to 13% in 2012, and saw its dropout rate decrease from 35% for the class of 2009-2010 to 14% for the class of 2011-2012
  • CFHS created a strong menu of multiple pathways to high school completion and beyond

As I stated earlier, Latinos are highly represented in the state’s core urban schools.  As Latinos increase in presence, however, issues of Latino students’ achievement levels become paramount to the future health of the state.  The causes of the Latino achievement challenges in the state are multifaceted, and the findings here cannot be considered definitively causal. There is need to further study the effect of: (1) language and culture, (2) how we use assessments, (3) which assessment tools to use, and (4) for what purpose to use them. It is a complex combination of factors that cannot be addressed or moved by simplistic solutions.

The facts by themselves are sobering.  I hear sirens every day in my head as a result of knowing these numbers intimately.  These numbers conclude that our Latino and English Language Learner students are facing an educational crisis, and raise many questions about how the systems from the local, state and federal levels are acknowledging the diversity of our students. What can we do to meet the needs of our Latino students in RI?  How do we connect to them?  What strategies can we implement to raise their proficiencies?  How do we keep our students interested in their education?  At the most basic of levels – how do we get them to just show up to class? These are all questions that I am sure many of you, as students and practitioners of education, ask yourselves every day. No one person has the answer, but if we work collectively, we stand a better chance is achieving success for our students.

There exists a tremendous opportunity for collaboration between higher education and K-12 education in RI. This model of education reform was recently discussed at the University of RI, during the Honors Colloquium, the evening that Dr. Pedro Noguera spoke: notably, he said that universities should look beyond the traditional entry points to partnering with school districts—schools of education. What about the other disciplines and academic programs? What if a multidisciplinary approach to partnerships broke down the silos that have divided for so long? What if universities and schools targeted a community and together dared to dream big? I smiled as I heard him speak, because that is exactly what is happening at RIC and CFSD. This all begins by both organizations taking an unprecedented risk.  Rhode Island College’s demographic mirrors that of the states; it is a college that provides education relevant to today’s workforce, therefore it attracts many of the Latino students who do graduate.  In a move that only makes sense, yet has not been attempted in the state, RIC and the Central Falls School District have entered into a partnership, creating the Central Falls/Rhode Island College Innovation Lab. Both arms extended and missions aligned make them ready for engagement.

Their mission is, together, to connect the members of Central Falls – its K-12 students, teachers, parents, neighbors, businesses, and public officials – with the RIC community to produce a community that is mentally, socially, physically, economically, and academically sound, solid.  This collaboration intends to help Central Falls students achieve the standard – and even further – needed for their success.  It is an opportunity to provide educational leadership and research, as well as lifelong learning and resources that serve both the community of Central Falls and RIC. 

Endless diversity, omnipresent culture, and boundless talent – these are the characteristics that the schools of Central Falls bring to the partnership. Yes we bring offerings too! We provide the setting for a real-time lab, a place to explore, teach, learn, and implement best practices.  Together, RIC and Central Falls become a research-based ecosystem that feeds back to, nourishes, both their respective classrooms.  Teachers and teachers in training will get robust, hands-on, and personal exposure to an urban school setting, while students will be part of a much larger learning community, both of which are way beyond customary for either community.  

Great collaborative projects through the Innovation Lab are already forming and some are already in place. Some of you may already be involved—and if so, THANK YOU! For example:

  • Students from the Rhode Island College School of Social Work provide 16-20 hours a week of services to the CF school district through the Social Worker Academy. As an MSW alum of RIC this is near and dear to my heart.
  • There’s the Aquatic Program, in which aquatic classes are provided to CF special education students. (CF has no working pool indoor or outdoor and it allows very special needs children to interact with the RIC pool community—breaking down barriers to inclusion.)
  • Saturday high school students (yes, I did say SATURDAY)  have access to Yoga Classes through the Physical Education program at RIC.  Yoga classes have also been offered, twice a week, at Veteran’s Elementary to fourth-grade students. (re-affirming the sound mind and body model of learning can start at any age)
  • RIC faculty are establishing mentor relationships with middle school students through the Pen Pal Program. I wonder if this is a project that we could build even further incorporating the teachings of Dr. Jenn Cook and the RI Writing Project.
  • During Planning Meetings, faculty from both RIC and CFS host large open invitational planning sessions to share ideas, which they display through artwork rather than simply vocalize.
  • RIC was recently awarded a Title IIA grant to work with Central Falls on the math project, Depth over Breadth Equals Student Success (D/B = SS). An important aside note, The Rhode Island Office of Higher Education utilized the LPI education report to strategically focus their RFP.
  • Six ESL CFHS students were enrolled at RIC last fall as incoming students through Project Excel. Project ExCEL (Excellence in College for English Learners) is an academic initiative at Rhode Island College aiming to expand college access for talented bilingual students. Because the process of acquisition of academic English for non-native speakers of English is complex and extends over several years, many highly capable, literate and academically talented advanced bilinguals often do not have all the mainstream English courses required for admission to a four-year college or university. In close partnership with high school and other counselors, Project ExCEL @ RIC enrolls bright, accomplished bilinguals with established success in academic subjects and provides them the opportunity to pursue a Rhode Island College degree. Exposing ELL’s to higher education, these students would not have had access due to language and not because they are not capable of or academically prepared for college. We see these students often in CFHS, academically gifted but verbal and written expression is limited due to being ESL. I want to especially acknowledge Brian Stevens from the Admissions Dept. and Prof. Andres Ramirez from Educational Studies for shepherding this program and busting that cage open! The latest #’s are 46 applications  from 10 different schools and 14 students offered admission and 4 going via the PEP program…..Colleagues, this is HUGE. This is being responsive to the changing demographics at every level of a system!  This is a major game changer!

We are marching down a two-way street – in essence, everyone is teaching and learning.  Rhode Island College and the Central Falls School District stand poised, together, to take public education back and to show the state a new path.  We are achieving together. Two RI icons taking risks, exploring, studying and joining forces together for the betterment of their institutions, the students and the community. 

I went into writing this speech with the warrior motif in mind, because of a beautiful piece written by Superintendent of schools in Central Falls, Dr. Frances Gallo, which she shared with the school board, on the definition of the warrior.  She wrote:  '…a true warrior is a person who yearns to learn, to understand, to care, to be compassionate, to bring peace. The warrior is one who carries another on his back and never leaves anyone behind.'  We can all agree that this is the quintessential Central Falls spirit, right? Like a young Anna, our students and our systems are riddled with inferiority complexes.  This is unacceptable – that so much talent remains dormant and unmined. Our strength is our combined grit and history in RI.  But before we go too far down the road we need to acknowledge our diversity. Diversity matters, and knowing your diversity matters even more.  When our students succeed and thrive, our community succeeds and thrives.  But in order for our students to taste success they need to see everyone working towards the same goals.  The time of standing idly by is over, its been over two decades ago.  Opinions and nay-saying are no longer any good here; innovation and action are imperative every day.  We don’t have a minute to spare. The face of the state is changing:  Latinos are the largest racial/ethnic group in our state and they are the primary consumer of public education. Therefore, we either seize this amazing opportunity or we ignore it at our own peril. Transformation in education is happening.  It must happen, in order for education equity to really take place for all students. So, today, I ask you to pick up your spears, put on the war paint, take a deep breath, learn something new and Be that Warrior.

Thank you."

-- Anna Cano-Morales
Director at the Latino Policy Institute @ RWU


Post by LPI student intern Briana J. Mason (Spring 2014)