Schools Try Tuning Into Latino Ways
When they were high school juniors, Laura Guzik and Jorge Posadas never saw themselves as college material. Laura hoped for a graduation-day wedding and a houseful of kids. Jorge's goal was a career in auto repair.Skip to next paragraph
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The offer of a scholarship for college - theirs for a B average and a near-perfect attendance record - changed all that. Today, Laura is a first-grade teacher. Jorge is a counselor at a local college.
Their story is a bright spot in a problem that has dogged American educators for decades: the high Hispanic dropout rate. Billions of dollars have been poured into everything from bilingual classes to school-based health clinics, yet nearly a third of all Hispanic youths in America leave school without a diploma, according to a recent survey by the US Department of Education.
This failure has some educators looking to create an entirely new classroom culture, one that changes far more than its textbooks. In fact, some experts argue the problem is not that Hispanic students are unfit for school; American schools may be unfit for Hispanic students.
The key may be a focus on group learning - as well as greater parental and church involvement in school affairs. "Hispanic families tend to teach children to respect elders," and often focus on the needs of the group, says Elena Lopez, an education professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
The consequence is that quiet students are often labeled apathetic or insolent. Many end up receiving less attention from teachers than do white peers.
As a result, hundreds of underperforming schools - from East Los Angeles to the Rio Grande Valley - are moving to build on the cultural strengths of their Hispanic communities. If Latino hands aren't rising during question-and-answer time, for example, teachers try to put children into collaborative groups. If Hispanic parents are reluctant to speak out at parent-teacher meetings, or to inquire when their children falter, schools are taking extra steps to make parents feel like partners.
This new tack has found particular success in San Antonio with the help of a broad-based community group called Metro Alliance. Groups affiliated with the Alliance, which was formed in 1989 by parents, principals, businesses, and church leaders, have spread this concept of parent-friendly schooling to 125 elementary, middle, and high schools across the Southwest.
While it is too early to see whether Alliance schools have reduced Hispanic dropout rates overall, a visit to Lamar Elementary on San Antonio's predominantly Hispanic west side shows how Alliance schools are trying to respond effectively to the needs of their community.
In the freshly painted cafeteria, and a sign proclaims this school's newfound ethic: "The Iron Rule: Never ever do for someone else what they can do for themselves."
Here, parents volunteer as reading tutors. They carry petitions door-to-door in the neighborhood, or hold house meetings to discuss upcoming school bond initiatives.
Parent Maribel Lara seems especially grateful for the new Alliance spirit. Small wonder: Once, a previous principal kicked her off school grounds.
"She didn't recognize me, even though I had been a teacher's aide for a year," laughs the dynamic mother of two, who often holds late-night house meetings with neighbors to discuss Lamar after returning from her two housekeeping jobs. "Before, I felt like I was a client. Now, I'm a partner."