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Democrat & Chronicle
The Hispanic Boom
Schools' sympathetic ear: Special district office helps show the way
by Heather Hare
November 24, 2003
When Francis Rodriguez's son failed first grade the first time, she thought it was because English wasn't his first language.
After the second time he failed, she called Rose Mary Villarrubia-Izzo at the City School District for help. Villarrubia-Izzo, a project worker who specializes in assisting the district's Hispanic families, helped Rodriguez through parent-teacher conferences where she learned that her son needed a special-education evaluation.
It wasn't the first time Villarrubia-Izzo helped Rodriguez and her family. The 30-year-old mother first came to Rochester as a child with her own mother. Villarrubia-Izzo helped her family get into public schools then. Rodriguez went back to Puerto Rico and returned to Rochester with her own children in 1990. She went straight to Villarrubia-Izzo for help.
"(Without her help) I would just be out there looking for someone to help me. Rose Mary at least knows English," Rodriguez said through an interpreter.
Villarrubia-Izzo helped Rodriguez find housing and get public assistance, cold weather clothing for her children and medical care. The family has a genetic condition that causes them to slowly lose their sight. Villarrubia-Izzo has taken them to doctor's appointments and has helped them pick out glasses.
Rodriguez also asked for Villarrubia-Izzo's help when her daughter was hospitalized for bulimia. Rodriguez said she couldn't understand what the doctors around the big table were trying to tell her. Villarrubia-Izzo helped her to understand.
Villarrubia-Izzo said some people don't understand what helping families with medical problems has to do with education, but she said the connection is simple. "The bottom line is that those things that affect them at home, affect them at school."
Many of the calls to Villarrubia-Izzo come from Spanish-speaking parents who don't understand what's going on with their children. They don't understand special-education classification, student placement or why their child has been suspended.
Sometimes, problems are simple. A parent needs a translated version of a district policy. Sometimes, the problems are very complicated. A family's house burns down and they have no place to live, let alone school clothes or a bus stop.
"At least they know there's an office that can help them," Villarrubia-Izzo said.
Villarrubia-Izzo sits at a desk in a maze of cubicle walls on the third floor of the City School District's main office on West Broad Street. The district's new combined Office of Bilingual and Hispanic Services comprises seven people who are charged with overcoming obstacles to - and celebrating the successes of - educating Hispanic students in the city. The office was redesigned this year to consolidate three separate offices that deal with outreach, bilingual education and Hispanic Studies and to help provide more comprehensive care to the students.
Although the population of Hispanic students has remained relatively steady in the Rochester School District for the past five years - at between 17 and 19 percent of the student body - Hispanic students still outnumber non-Hispanic white students. More than 6 percent of the district's students are considered to have limited proficiency in English, down from about 8 percent in 1999-2000. Both pieces of data are in line with state averages.
The challenges for these students, although not entirely unique, include families that don't speak English, don't understand the culture, don't know how the school system works, struggle with poverty, and so on.
But that doesn't stem the energy of the people in the district's Office of Bilingual and Hispanic Services. With the consolidation and the growing partnerships between the district and outside businesses or organizations, the staff bubbles with optimism.
"We, as a district, can no longer do it alone," said Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez, director of Academic Career Counseling and Community Partnerships. "It's impossible."
So the district leans on partners, such as the Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center, several area colleges, engineers from Eastman Kodak and Xerox and Rochester, to help provide mentors, tutoring and social services the district itself can't provide. And the district sets aside time to celebrate the culture and successes of its Hispanic students.
Sammy Colon, who turns 17 Tuesday, is one of the students the City School District celebrated after he won an essay contest for Hispanic Heritage Month. Sammy, an 11th-grader at John Marshall High School, said he entered the contest to earn extra credit points, but he took the opportunity to write about problems faced by Hispanics. He said he feels the employment and housing plights of Hispanics are often ignored.
"People always talk about the blacks and whites," Sammy said.
The district also goes out of its way to recognize those Hispanic students who achieve grade point averages higher than 4.0 out of a possible 4.5. Jay Lopez, 13, a Monroe Middle School student, received an award for his high average at a ceremony before a recent board meeting. The room was packed with families.
"It was definitely an honor and it was nice to see something was being done for the good students," Jay said.
Jay's brother, Daniel Lopez, 16, a Wilson Magnet High School student, was also honored. Jay said a lot of money and effort go to help lower-achieving students do better, so being recognized for doing well made him feel good.
While Rochester's Hispanic population, now more than 28,000, grew by 48 percent since 1990, according to the 2000 census, the Hispanic population in the six-county region grew by 60 percent, to 5.3 percent of the total. That means smaller districts with smaller student populations and fewer resources have to find creative ways to serve their Hispanic populations.
The Mount Morris Central School District in Livingston County has teamed up with Catholic Charities of Livingston County to help the Hispanic community and to strengthen the presence of the culture in the schools and the community. Catholic Charities has stationed a bilingual staff person in Mount Morris schools for about half that person's week.
Catholic Charities has helped to connect Hispanic college students with Mount Morris schools and to revive the Hispanic tradition of Quinceaæera, a coming-of-age ceremony for 15-year-old girls, for families who couldn't otherwise afford the fancy affair. Because of the religious aspects of the ceremony, the school district cannot participate, but Superintendent Kathleen Farrell said she recognizes the importance of such cultural links.
The district itself has begun celebrating the Feast of Three Kings as a cultural event, not a religious one, every January. A special lunch is offered to all students, and the community is invited to an assembly that evening, Farrell said.
Farrell said the school district has been listening to the Hispanic community in Mount Morris to find out what people want and need. She said one of the problems Spanish-speaking parents have expressed is that they don't always understand what teachers tell them about their children. For example, parents may think their daughter is doing well when a teacher says she is a "challenging" student; the teacher may actually be trying to say the student needs more attention than he can provide.
"We're starting up a class for people whose primary language is Spanish to help them have conversations with school people," Farrell said.
In Ontario County's Geneva city schools, the social studies teachers have received special training from Hobart and William Smith Colleges to include Hispanic history in their classes, said Superintendent Joseph Stoner. About 10 percent of the district's student population of 2,600 is Hispanic.
The district employs five English-as-a-second-language teachers, one at each of the district's schools. Parents, especially those who speak Spanish, are encouraged to enroll their children in Head Start, an early childhood education program, so the students can get a jumpstart on learning English, Stoner said.
"We immerse them into the regular academic setting as much as we can," he said.
Some districts have begun migrant outreach programs or have folded services for Hispanic students into larger initiatives to help all students who may struggle with English and cultural differences.
Numbers remain low
Even with partnerships and cultural initiatives, Hispanic families often live below the poverty line - more than 83 percent of the Rochester district's Hispanic students received free and reduced lunches last school year. And, although the population is making improvements, Rochester's Hispanic students are still not reaching the achievement levels of the district's non-Hispanic white students. While 17.4 percent of the district's students reached state standards on the last eighth-grade English exam, 14.1 percent of Hispanic students did so. In math, 12.3 percent of the district's eighth-graders met math standards, while 9.9 percent of Hispanic students did so.
In addition, absentee rates for Hispanics exceed those of the other large student groups, and achievement has been directly tied to attendance. Attendance for female Hispanics was 88.7 percent in 2001-02, while the rate for female African Americans was 90.9 percent vs. 90.6 percent for white females. For male Hispanics, the rate was 88.4 percent vs. 90.5 percent for male African Americans and 90.7 percent for white males.
The Office of Bilingual and Hispanic Services tries to address differences like those. It encourages high school students to take the preliminary SAT and consider college. It sets up fairs for colleges to see the district's brightest Hispanic students. It uses testing data and research to decide which bilingual programs are working best and build on them.
But while all of those things are important, and they affect the lives of the district's 6,700 Hispanic students, it's Rose Mary Villarrubia-Izzo and colleague Liduvina Quinones who have the most one-on-one contact with Hispanic families.
Ask Villarrubia-Izzo what a normal day is like for her, and she'll tell you no two are the same. Some days, Hispanic families come in off the street looking for help. They'll huddle in her cubicle to figure out how to register children or communicate with a school. Sometimes, she gets calls from teachers seeking help for their Hispanic students.
Villarrubia-Izzo said one teacher called her because a Hispanic student often seemed tired at school. The teacher thought the parent didn't understand the child needed more sleep, Villarrubia-Izzo said. Together, they made a house call.
Once there, they found the problem wasn't lack of knowledge but one of housing. The living space was infested with rats that kept the student up at night. The family didn't know they could ask for help.
And while some of her day is spent on social and housing problems, Villarrubia-Izzo helps many families with academic problems. She helped Rodriguez navigate through the educational system's process for classifying students in special education. Her son, Angel David Gonzalez, failed first grade twice before he was diagnosed with a learning disability. Villarrubia-Izzo walked her through the process and got her son into a program at a different school.
"I appreciate her a lot," Rodriguez said.
About this series
This is the eleventh in a monthly series the Democrat and Chronicle is publishing this year focusing on the triumphs, issues and challenges facing the Hispanic community in the Rochester area."The bottom line is that those things that affect them at home affect them at school."