SAN FRANCISCO—With the news that Latinos, for the first time ever, have become the majority in California’s public schools, researchers and educators called on the state to do more to help these students get an education that prepares them for the 21st century.
According to the state Department of Education, 51 percent of students—or 3.1 million—identify as Hispanic. Fifteen years ago, Latinos represented only 37 percent of all public school students in California.
“It’s increasingly urgent for this state to get serious about Hispanic kids because they are the ones doing the least well in school,” says Patricia Gandara, UCLA professor and author of “The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies.” One-quarter of Latinos drop out of high school.
Gandara believes their growing numbers exemplifies the need for more bilingual teachers and Latino teachers in California.
In order to be effective in the classroom, teachers must understand the challenges Latino children face and must know how to communicate with their families, she says.
Latinos make up only about 16 percent of California’s teachers, according to Gandara's research. In the Oakland Unified School District, for example, enrollment of Latino students increased 12 percent since 2000, but the number of Latino teachers increased by just one percentage point, Oakland North reports.
“We need more scholarships for promising young Latinos to pursue teaching credential programs,” Gandara says.
Meanwhile, districts need to make room for more Latino teachers and protect those who are already working from rampant layoffs during this recession.
“We trained highly qualified Latino student teachers at UCLA’s graduate school last year, but some couldn’t find jobs when they graduated,” Gandara says. “We need to make the profession of teaching less risky to enter.”
Better Early-Childhood Education
Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, reiterates the need for affordable and accessible early-childhood education geared toward Latino students.
A poll released by Preschool California and Univision before the November 2010 elections found that Latinos of all political affiliations favored candidates who supported early education. Yet many Latino families can’t access childcare because of high costs. For those low-income families who receive childcare subsidy through programs like CalWORKS 3, deep cuts to California’s budget have threatened those programs.
Slashing early education would gravely affect Latino student achievement. Last year, the state had more than 1.4 million English-Language learners. Those students typically enter kindergarten with lower language and pre-literacy skills than their middle-class white peers because they’re not exposed to rich English language at home.
For example, by fourth grade, only 49 percent of Latino students meet the state standards for reading, compared with 78 percent of white students, according to Children Now’s “2010 California Report Card: Setting the Agenda for Children.”
Fuller’s research debunks the widely held assumption that poor Latino parents raise inadequately prepared students.
“We discovered Latino children began school with lots of enthusiasm and social agility inside the classrooms…[this] enthusiasm helps children learn at a rapid rate and social skills contribute to cognitive learning,” Fuller says.
Difficulty Often Begins in Middle School
But their enthusiasm and well-developed social skills often erode upon transition to middle school. Fuller says a combination of negative peer pressure and low expectations of teachers often reduces their engagement with school as they grow older.
Numerous studies have shown that when teachers have low expectations of Latino students, this attitude affects academic performance and self-confidence.
“Latino parents of working-class or low-income backgrounds worry that teachers assume their children won’t go to college or pursue a professional job,” Fuller says.
What it needed are culturally sensitive teachers and strong parental advocacy, Fuller and Gandara say.
Teaching Parents to Be Better Advocates
Will Latino parents be able to capitalize on their strength in numbers? Can parents organize effectively to push teachers to have higher expectations for their children?
Alma El Issa of the Parents Institute for Quality Education in Fresno (PIQE) says the news that Latinos students are now in the majority in California doesn’t seemed to have woken up the parents she works with—yet.
“They feel because they’re not educated and because there aren’t many Latinos represented on school boards or in public office, they don’t have much power,” El Issa says.
Yet parents have more power than they realize in terms of forcing improvements in a school system and holding schools accountable, she insists.
PIQE offers a nine-week course in which it trains Latino parents in the Central Valley to navigate the public school system and advocate for their children.
“I’ve seen immigrant parents become amazing speakers through the PIQE program,” Gandana says. “It’s parent-to-parent organizing, and their model really works.”
Latino parents rarely miss the financial aid class, which is eye-opening to many of them, El Issa says.
Many Don't Know About Financial Aid
“Most Latino parents I work with don’t even realize their kids can attend college with financial aid assistance,” she explains. “They know about scholarship opportunities, but they assume college isn’t an option for their children if they can’t afford costly tuition.”
In Fresno, organizations like PIQE have led to tremendous growth in parent involvement with schools. Working with 50 to 60 schools—up from 25 schools in 2005—PIQE had more than 2,600 parents go through its nine-week training class in 2009.
The 2010 Californians and Higher Education Survey released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) earlier this month found that 80 percent of Latino parents believe a college education is necessary in order to be successful in today's work world.
Yet Prudence Carter, an associate professor of education and sociology at Stanford University, said she fears there may be a decline in enrollment of Latino and black students in higher education because of tuition increases sweeping colleges across the state.
“We have this dominant ideology in America that education is the key to success, but because of budget cuts and the rapidly rising costs of higher education, we’re making it impossible for kids from low-income families to be able to afford college,” she says.
“If the growing population becomes undereducated because of the lack of higher education affordability, this will be a critical issue for the economy when it come to innovation, technology, and work force,” she adds.
The poll also found that 72 percent of Latino parents are very worried about how to pay for college---up 19 points since 2007.
PPIC projects that by 2025, 41 percent of all jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or higher, yet only 35 percent of Californians will have a college degree. The state will face a shortage of 1 million college graduates, according to the research.
“It’s going to get harder and harder to encourage Latino kids to buy into an education system that is broken,” Carter says.
Culturally Sensitive Programs Under Attack
The news about the new Latino majority in California schools comes as innovative, culturally relevant instructional models are facing a growing backlash in other parts of the country.
Augustine Romero, founder of Raza Studies at Tucson Unified School District Arizona, pioneered an innovative urban education model called Critically Compassionate Intellectualism that allows high school students to take classes such as Chicano Studies, Native American Studies, and African American studies. The Ethnic Studies program, which has existed for seven years, serves around 1,300 high school students and sends Mexican-American students to college at rate of 98 percent, according to Romero.
However, the program faces being cut under Arizona’s HB 2281, a law passed earlier this year that bans ethnic studies programs in the state.
“We’ve created an environment where kids of color can be more successful in school, but the unfortunate reality is that we are in the process of being eliminated despite our strong track record,” says Romero, who is currently the Tuscon district's director of student equity.