Look Who's Teaching Well

Gold-star ideas from Latin American schools

Chatting in the staff lunchroom at San Diego High School, a group of teachers are in agreement: The challenges facing schools in America's poorer southern neighbors are moving north.

As they munch on homemade sandwiches and cafeteria pizza, one English teacher says, "Let's face it. The border's not at the US-Mexico line anymore. It's moved up to I-8," the interstate that cuts through San Diego.

Education in the United States may appear to be far ahead of Latin America - until one looks at inner cities and other areas with a high proportion of minorities. In these places, poverty, underemployment, and violence - which often strangle education in Latin America - are limiting minority children's success in school, as a recent report by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation in Washington points out.

And, as in Latin America, a growing number of US schools are also confronting the cultural and communication issues that come with fast-growing immigrant populations. Two decades ago, San Diego's public schools were 60 percent white. Today that percentage has dropped to 20 percent. Latinos make up the largest group at 33 percent.

"These are the children who will form our future, so our challenge now is to make equality of opportunity work for the 21st century," says Ron Ottinger, president of the San Diego Board of Education. That's why education is Topic No. 1 at the Summit of the Americas April 18 and 19.

Hispanics constitute America's fastest-growing student group. Recognizing this, President Clinton recently called for more than $600 million in federal spending on math, reading, and English programs for Hispanic students. His plan is based on studies showing Hispanics are 2.5 times more likely than blacks and 3.5 times more likely than whites to drop out of school. As in Latin America, Hispanics in the US often leave school for work in order to provide income for their families. Part of the White House plan is to persuade students that this no longer makes sense.

Grade repetition versus "social promotion" is another issue hitting heavily at schools with large percentages of Hispanics in the US - and at schools in Latin America. In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush (R) considers the issue so important that he is making the abolition of automatic promotion to the next grade a central theme of his reelection campaign.

Over the past decade, schools from California to Brazil stopped forcing children to repeat a grade. Research suggested this damages self-esteem, threatened younger children paired with the older underachievers, and encouraged dropping out. No one thought it a good idea to emulate Nicaragua or Guatemala, where in the early 1990s, the average child took 11 years of schooling to complete the sixth grade.

But educators on both continents now say simply "moving kids along" doesn't help either. "We're grappling with this all over the US now," says Tony Alfaro, principal of the two-thirds Hispanic San Diego High School. "We should hold children back who don't achieve the standard. But on the other hand, if we did, we'd have 18-year-olds in the fourth grade."

"The border is blurring," says Mr. Alfaro, who was born in Mexico. "The problems ... schools face down there have moved north."

The Monitor combed Latin American schools for creative ideas in education that might be useful as more Hispanics fill seats in US classrooms.

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