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Study shows Latino students are falling behind in city schools

Study shows Latino students are falling behind in school
Findings fuel renewed interest in improving Latino academic achievement

Latino academic underachievement and dropout rates continue to remain alarmingly high in urban school districts, both nationally and locally. Yet, the unique perspectives of Latino students and their families in Rochester, along with their recommendations for change, are now being heard through a new study, conducted by the Warner School of Education in partnership with the Education Task Force of the Ibero-American Action League.

Informed by local concerns to address the persistent Latino dropout problem in Rochester, this study draws specifically from Latino students and their families’ experiences in the Rochester City School District (RCSD)—representative of a little over 20 percent of the total district population—to better understand the state of Latino education in Rochester. The study highlights many similarities to what most urban districts are already facing nationwide and sheds light on new obstacles in schools and the community locally that derail students’ academic achievement. Additionally, the study identifies several community and school resources that help students to succeed.

Specifically, the study notes the critical transition points for Latino students in the RCSD and the persistence, school, and learning factors—including safety in schools, structural and organizational factors, and racial and ethnic tensions—that contribute to the development of educational aspirations of Latino students.

The first phase of the study, released by Warner School researchers in a report in October, identifies problems and resources and, more importantly, offers recommendations and steps that the district and community can take to help improve the state of Latino education in Rochester.

Principal investigators Judy Marquez Kiyama and Donna Harris, both assistant professors in educational leadership at the Warner School, say that with public schools serving a growing number of Latino students, it is necessary to understand the factors that promote success as well as the barriers and systems that limit and disrupt schooling.

Data for this study was collected through 2003-07 student records from the RCSD detailing dropout and transition trends and 31 focus groups interviewing 95 students and 45 parents and guardians. The findings from both confirm that Latino students continue to fall behind academically and experience higher dropout rates than any other demographic group in Rochester.

Overall, only 38 percent of Latinos in Rochester schools graduate on time, compared to the district’s average of 51 percent, according to 2008 data. In 2009, 36 percent of Latinos dropped out, compared to 32 percent of all students. Rochester is not alone. Between 1998 and 2008, the national dropout rate was consistently higher for Latinos than for any other race/ethnicity.

One particular pervasive problem faced by Latino youths, the study reported, is that they feel that their peers and teachers are racially biased against them because they are Latino. The study also found that Latino students feel unsafe and criminalized. Students also expressed concerns about the limited access to bilingual programs in schools, and noted that they have been pushed to schools with scarce or no bilingual resources because other schools were full.

After studying the Latino educational attainment and dropout rates in Rochester for six months, the report called for the district to reexamine its in-school suspensions, school security and surveillance, and bilingual program policies; establish programming that addresses school violence issues and risks; and provide ongoing workshops on social justice, inclusion, and race to staff and students.

According to the report, Latino students also have difficulty progressing through middle school and high school because of school, geographic, and immigration transition experiences. Students shared that they often have a difficult time mastering two languages and adapting to new schools because of instruction, grading, setting, and diversity changes.

“Those behind grade level are at a higher risk of dropping out of school,” explains Harris.

In response to these transition patterns, the report also said that the district should make staff available at all schools to deal with mobility and migration issues, provide more opportunities for parents to participate in transition programs, and increase bilingual staff.

Ties to school- and community-based programs were singled out as a particularly strong influence in helping Latino youth set high academic expectations for themselves and making them aware of their college and career opportunities. Researchers found that students would feel completely lost without programs like Upward Bound, a federally-funded TRIO program coordinated by the University of Rochester and offered in five schools, and AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), a program offered to students in 18 high schools. The report also suggested that the district should make these programs available in every school and provide them during accessible times for students.

But above all, the researchers said that these are not just school issues—they are problems that the entire community must address.

“The findings of this study prove that Rochester has an educational crisis on its hands with respect to Latino education; but it doesn’t affect the Latino community alone,” says Kiyama. “It affects the future of Rochester as a whole. Latino students and the rest of their peers who do not graduate from high school will have limited access to future educational opportunities and jobs.”

The high concentration of Latinos coupled with their high dropout rate in the RCSD make this study particularly timely. Latinos make up 33 percent of the total population in poverty in the United States. A 2008 Pew Hispanic Center report forecasts that the Latino population, already the nation's largest minority group, will triple in size and will account for most of the nation's population growth from 2005 through 2050. Hispanics will make up 29 percent of the U.S. population in 2050, compared with 14 percent in 2005.

“Creating a safe and nurturing environment for all Latino students to learn will require a commitment from schools, communities, organizations, and families,” adds Harris.

Results of the study—“School Experiences of Latino/a Students: A Community Based Study of Resources, Challenges and Successes”—were shared by Warner colleagues and co-researchers Kiyama and Harris. Other members of Warner’s research team include Associate Professor Nancy Ares and graduate students Sandra Quiñones, Emily Martinez Vogt, Amalia Dache-Gerbino, Thomas Noel, Anibal Soler, and Monica Miranda Smalls.