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Chicago Tribune

Report: Latino Students Founder; Chicago Schools Fail Them, It Says

By Ana Beatriz Cholo, Tribune staff reporter

February 16, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

From preschoolers trying to get into early childhood programs to students wishing to attend magnet schools, Latino students are being shortchanged in Chicago Public Schools, according to a study released by the chairman of the state Senate Education Committee.

The report, released by Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), states that Latino students are being "pushed backward instead of forward" in the city schools and also around the state.

It details myriad issues facing Latinos, who make up about 36 percent of the students in Chicago's public schools and are considered to be the fastest-growing demographic.

Highlights of the report include how schools in Latino neighborhoods are extremely overcrowded, how Latino students are less likely than white students--who make up less than 10 percent of the student population--to be accepted into the district's coveted magnet schools.

It also talks about the smaller proportion of Latino youngsters enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs and the overrepresentation of Latinos in the half-day programs.

Spots in these early childhood classes are coveted, with thousands on the waiting list. According to the report, Spanish-speaking children make up the majority of children waiting to enroll.

Del Valle said opportunities for very young and gifted native English speakers are available, yet the same options are not afforded to gifted Spanish-speaking youngsters.

The report states that urgent attention must be paid to the Latino population and to their low test scores, high dropout rate, and a shortage of Latino teachers and principals in the schools.

Del Valle is a graduate of Clemente High School in Humboldt Park who said two brothers in his family dropped out of high school years ago because of problems that continue to exist.

"It's getting rougher and rougher out there in our schools," said del Valle Friday, shortly after giving the 46-page report to Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan and meeting with him briefly to discuss its contents.

Del Valle said he will use the findings in the report to "make a case in Springfield" for additional funding for education.

He is calling on Gov. Rod Blagojevich to keep education in the forefront when he delivers his budget address Wednesday.

Duncan, in turn, acknowledges the tremendous growth in the Latino population. He said he has not read the report but has discussed with del Valle some of the district's recent efforts and future plans.

He said he will join the senator during a news conference Monday and both will meet again in several weeks to get a plan in place to improve the situation.

Duncan said Latinos are "a hugely important segment of the students we serve and for many, many years--for the last 20, 30 years--there's been a historic lack of representation in the teaching profession among Latinos."

The district, he said, is partnering with community groups to provide more sites for early childhood education, adding 800 new spots for a total of 4,800. In September, the number is expected to increase to 6,000.

An innovative pilot program called "Pre-K and Kinder Plus" will roll out in the spring and target overcrowded Latino neighborhoods, Duncan said. The school district will subcontract with community organizations to provide free early childhood programs for about 1,000 children by using space in public schools after the regular school students are dismissed for the day.

Duncan also said the district is trying to recruit more Latino teachers and support personnel in the schools.

Currently, he said 21 bilingual psychology students are going through a program at Loyola University. Their tuition is being paid by the school district, and the expectation is that they will go to work in Chicago's schools upon graduation.

The report was written by a group of volunteer educators, most college-level professors, who worked on the study for almost a year.

Andrea Lee, the schools initiative coordinator at the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, said they are particularly concerned about overcrowding in schools on the Southwest and Northwest Sides, where the Latino population is growing rapidly.

"I think it is a real urgent, pressing issue that Chicago needs to address," she said.

"We realize money is tight and we appreciate Sen. del Valle's efforts to propose a $1 billion appropriation for the school construction program. However, with this said, we urge the Chicago Public Schools to also be more accountable with our money--making sure it's going to schools most in need, that there is a short- and long-term plan to relieve our overcrowded schools."

At Davis Elementary School in Brighton Park, one of the most overcrowded schools in the city, street vendors await school dismissal at 2:30 p.m. each day.

One has a large tray full of sweet, sugar-coated churros selling for $1 a piece. A hundred yards away, on the corner of Sacramento Avenue and 39th Place, another has a cart full of chicharrones, sliced pepinos and mango chunks for sale.

Principal Sylvia Rodriquez said it's hard to keep up with the number of children that come into her school each year in droves.

Rodriquez remembers that when she started with the school district more than 30 years ago, Latino students barely made up 10 percent of the population.

Now her elementary school, with three buildings on its spread-out campus, has a population of almost 2,000 pupils, about 97 percent of them Latino. Overcrowding is her biggest concern but she said they are doing the best that they can. Mobility is another issue.

"With people going back to Mexico and Puerto Rico, they transfer in and transfer out," Rodriguez said as planes arriving or departing from Midway flew overhead. "It breaks the continuity of our instruction."

Half of the school's teachers are Latino, but where they encounter the most difficulty is in hiring support personnel. They are lucky to have a bilingual psychologist and a social worker that speaks Spanish, but they have had difficulty in finding a bilingual nurse.

The study by del Valle's committee points out there is only one bilingual psychologist per 6,390 Latino students.

"Now you're hitting a big nerve there," said Eduardo Negron, the school's assistant principal regarding the need for Spanish-speaking staff. "We actively recruit for the bilingual teachers but there are just not enough available."

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