What Can Be Done About the Latino Student Achievement Gap?

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Nearly one in four children in the U.S. are Latino, and it’s time to prepare teachers and schools to educate them more effectively, educator and activist Jose Moreno told a crowd of 400 people at an education summit in Santa Ana Sept. 30.

In Orange County, 47 percent of school children are Latino and constitute a majority in many city schools, according to Moreno. Latinos don’t reside only in Santa Ana but also in Buena Park, La Habra, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove and San Juan Capistrano, he said. “Demographics happen.”

“The question is not, ‘What do we do about those kids’ but ‘How do we get schools ready for kids?’ ” Moreno said.

He suggested one possible solution: improved teacher training and preparation in a county where only 11 percent of teachers are Latino. He said school curriculums need to go beyond testing and instill critical thinking and collaboration, which are valued in the workplace.

Moreno’s talk was one highlight of “Closing the Latino Achievement Gap,” a conference at Santa Ana College focused on a problem vexing educators locally and nationally: the lagging progress of Latino students in the classroom.

Other strategies discussed at the summit were considering bilingualism an asset, rewarding bilingual and bicultural teachers, providing native-language instruction to boost academic performance, and improving college and career planning.

During his talk, Moreno displayed a series of statistics that he said audience members would find unpleasant but must be faced.

  • Two of three Latino students in Orange County are designated English learners in kindergarten.
  • In 2008, only 30 percent of U.S. Latinos earning bachelor’s degrees were males.
  • Middle-class Latino students perform at about the same level as low-income white students.
  • Graduation rates for Latinos are the lowest of all ethnic groups in Orange County.
  • Just 8 percent of Latino students in the Orange Unified School District and 15 percent in the Santa Ana Unified School District complete the course requirements needed to apply for the UC or California State University systems.

Presenters at the conference said the reasons for the achievement gap include cultural barriers, poor guidance counseling and racism.

“There is a myth that Latinos don’t want their kids to go to college. Is that crazy? We have to be loud and clear that the myth is wrong, totally wrong,” said keynote speaker Juan Sepulveda from the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. “This is about not knowing the system.”

A panel of students concurred.

“My parents influenced me to go to college, but my mother doesn’t really know what the process is. She doesn’t know what my SATs are,” said Escarlet Mar, a high school senior from Santa Ana.

Mar said her course selection in high school was somewhat random because she knew little about what colleges demanded. In retrospect, she said, she would have taken all advanced placement courses and now urges her sister to learn from her mistakes, telling her, “Don’t settle for less. Take the higher class even if it means staying up until 1 in the morning.”

Without parents to consult about college, some Latino students have had to rely on school counselors — with mixed results. Sepulveda said his counselor warned him he might not be college material, but he was accepted by Harvard University.

Sepulveda said that after completing a Rhodes scholarship, he ran into his high school guidance counselor. Upon hearing that Sepulveda was applying to high-ranking law schools, the counselor again predicted failure.

In addition to bad counseling, discouragement from teachers was also cited — surprisingly not always as an obstacle.

Jonathan Espinoza, a high school senior, recounted one incident in particular during a conference session.

“In the third grade the teacher in the front of the class said, ‘All you guys here, the Latino kids, are not going to amount to anything but working in fast food.’ That motivated me to prove her wrong,” Espinoza said to applause.

Other problems cited were being designated an English learner, which often bars students from higher-level science and math classes. Further, undocumented students often expect fewer opportunities for higher education and sometimes give up, student panelists said.

“There are a large number of dreamers who don’t continue because of circumstances beyond their control,” said Cal State Fullerton student Francisco Ramirez. “I consider myself American … even if a random string of nine digits [a Social Security number] doesn’t reflect this. I know I am an American.”

Amy DePaul is a freelance writer and lecturer in the University of California Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at depaula@uci.edu


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