Closing the Latino achievement gap


When you look at the numbers, it couldn’t be more clear:  The Latino population in Minnesota is growing, particularly the population of young people.  And yet, Latino students, like African American and American Indian students, are failing in our schools.  This is nothing new.  This has been going on a long time.  The question, raised by the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Chicano Latino Affairs Council, is what do we do about it?  

According to The 2009 State of Students of Color and American Indian Students, published by Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, research by the Department of Education reveals that 34 percent of Latino students measured proficient or above in the 2008 statewide eighth grade math assessments, as compared to 63 percent of white students.  Fourteen percent of Latino students measured proficient or above in the 2008 statewide 11th grade math assessments compared to 38 percent of white students.  (MMEP says the discrepancy between grades is partly due to inconsistent standards between grades).

The numbers for reading reveal similar results. While 71 percent of white students measured proficient or above in the 2008 statewide 7th grade reading assessments, 39 percent of Latino children measured proficient or above.  For tenth grade, 78 percent of white students measured proficient or above in reading, contrasted to 42 percent of Latino students. 

African-American and American Indian Students also fared poorly on the tests, but the group that did worst was English Language Learners, of whom Spanish-speaking students make up the majority.  For example, only three percent of English Language Learners were able to pass with proficiency or higher in the 2008 statewide 11th grade math assessments.  Twenty-two percent passed the seventh grade reading assessment, and 23 percent passed the tenth grade reading assessment.

To discuss the issue of the Latino achievement gap, the Minnesota Humanities Center hosted a community conversation called “Closing the Achievement Gap Within the Latino Community:  What’s Working?”  At the meeting, which was held at  Neighborhood House on August 23, Senator Patricia Torres Ray, Elia Bruggeman, former principal of Sleepy Eye School and current Director of Educational Services for the Northwest Suburban Integration School District, and Hector Garcia, the Executive Director of the Chicano Latino Affairs Council (CLAC) spoke about ways to bridge the achievement gap amongst Latino students. 

“I am sad to share with you the news is not very good,” Sen. Ray told the group of educators that met for the meeting.  “If I were to present the picture to you and all of you were Latino parents I would tell you that half of you would never see your children graduate in this state.”

Torres said that the saddest thing for her is that the achievement gap has been known many years. “When I came here 23 years ago, I was told about it,” she said.  “I have been talking about this for 23 years.  And many people in this room have been talking about this for even longer.”

The problem, Torres said, is that while many leaders and lawmakers agree there is a problem, they can’t agree on a solution.  No Child Left Behind, she said, was a good concept, but erred in its implementation, and in that the Bush Administration didn’t fund it properly.

Torres said that she tried to put forward a bill that would allot $450,000 to formulate a plan on how to solve the achievement gap.  The bill passed the Senate and House of Representatives, but was not implemented because it didn’t have money behind it. “The idea was not a perfect idea,” she said.  “These ideas seldom go through. Why?  Because everyone says they have a better idea.”

Sen. Torres encouraged the educators to talk to their lawmakers.  “We know investing in a true structure that delivers quality programs to ELL children actually works.”  Other states have universal structures for ELL across the state, but Minnesota doesn’t.  “Each district can do whatever they want,” Sen. Torres said. 

Further, Sen. Torres said, there will certainly be more budget cuts this year, given the $5-6 billion deficit.  “We have two pots of money,” she said.  “Education and health care. What are we going to do? Where are we going to go? I am sorry but we are going to have to go there.” 

The August 23 conference aimed to look at some things that work in closing the achievement gap.  The second speaker, Elia Bruggeman, is currently the Director of Educational Services for the Northwest Suburban Integration School District, and is the former principal of Sleepy Eye High School, located in a community with a high immigrant population.  Bruggeman, in her time at Sleepy Eye, developed initiatives that improved success for Latino students.

Bruggeman said that she felt courses such as science, history, and social studies classes (which have less prominence under No Child Left Behind) help ELL students because they require conversation. She also said that, in Sleepy Eye, she offered Spanish classes for Hispanics, because although the Latino students spoke Spanish, they didn’t know how to read and write in it.  Having them learn grammar in their own language helped them to succeed in writing English. 

Another successful venture that Bruggeman utilized in her time at Sleepy was involving the community.  “We can’t do it alone,” she said. “We have to use the community.”   That community extended beyond teachers, staff, and parents to nonprofit organizations, businesses, police, and even health and dental caregivers. 

Bruggeman worked toward helping students find financial aid for college, and encouraging students to take A.P. classes and College in the Schools, so they would need fewer credits once they got to college.

She also looked at cultural barriers that prevented students from succeeding.  Perhaps a student’s parents never graduated beyond elementary school, or a female student didn’t want to participate in physical education class because she wasn’t comfortable wearing shorts. Bruggeman tried to work with these barriers, at times compromising and at times trying to instill a different perspective. In one case, Bruggeman took the students who had the most truancy and put them in charge of the student handbook.  “What a power to have,” she said.  They also held a seat in the student council.  The truant students went from being the most problematic to thinking about how to turn problems around.

The question and answer session drew emotional responses from the educators.  Larry Lucio, Principal of Stadium View School at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center, said that public schools are innately classist and racist.  “We need to demand things and not ask for them,” Lucio said. 

Other participants were more hopeful. In a discussion led by Chicano Latino Affairs Council Hector Garcia, Lisa Hendericks from Partnership Academy, a Richfield charter school that reported a 91 percent Latino student body in 2009, said that her school has been pretty relentless about parents attending parent teacher conferences, achieving 100 percent attendance for two years a row, although in some cases that meant a home visit.  The school also provided interpreters in every classroom.  “It’s not rocket science,” she said. “It’s an expectation.” 

In his speech, Garcia gave an example of the 16th century, after the Spaniards had conquered Mexico. “The conquistadores heard about a city whose streets were paved in gold,” Garcia said.  “Group of soldiers went to search for this.”  They were looking for El Dorado, the city of gold, but all they found was puddles of black liquid.  That black liquid, Garcia said, eventually became the greatest asset to industrialized society.

“There’s a parallel between that experience and what is happening with Latino and other minority students,” Garcia continued.  “They have been seen traditionally as a problem.  When you deal with a problem you try to fix it.  Rather how do you elicit from a problem a solution?  How do they become part of the answer?”

Alberto Monserrate, Executive Director of Latino Communications Network, who is running for the Minneapolis school board, was out of town for the meeting, but he addressed the issue of the Latino achievement gap over the phone.  He believes the problem needs to be addressed by believing that the achievement gap can be solved.  He said that people that are working with Latino students must believe that all kids can learn, no matter their background, race, ethnic group, or family situation. 

“I think we assume everybody believes that,” Monserrate said.  “I don’t believe that teachers believe they are inferior, but there’s a belief that for certain kids who come from a different language background, there is not much the school can do about it.”

Monserrate also believes that there needs to be a better way to measure teachers’ effectiveness.  While he doesn’t believe in performance-based salaries, the administration and the teachers union need to come together in order to measure performance effectively, and to reward outstanding performance.