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Strategies Needed To Aid Latino Pupils


August 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Newsday, Inc. All rights reserved.

Daniel A. Domenech is a senior vice president of National Urban Markets at McGraw-Hill Education. Joseph Dolman and Lawrence C. Levy are off.

Recent news from the Pew Hispanic Center that Hispanic students earn bachelor's degrees only half as often as whites is particularly distressing for New York State.

The Urban Institute had earlier found that just 32 percent of New York's Hispanic students entering the ninth grade graduated four years later with a standard high school diploma - the worst results in the nation.

Hispanics are America's largest minority, and Latinos represent 15 percent of our nation's K-12 enrollment. An undereducated, poorly trained work force will negatively affect our knowledge-based economy. The average annual earnings for Hispanic college graduates are almost $20,000 higher than for Hispanics without a high school diploma.

Beyond the lost opportunities for these young people and the harm to America's socioeconomic future, the statistics are discouraging because we know how to do better. And we must begin as early in these students' lives as we possibly can.

As an immigrant kid from Cuba who survived the tough streets of Manhattan in the 1950s and went on to lead one of America's best school systems in Fairfax County, Va., I have devoted most of my career to closing the achievement gap between majority and minority populations. Based upon my many years of experience as a superintendent in New York and Virginia - including positions in Suffolk County's South Huntington and Deer Park - here is what I have learned.

First, our schools need comprehensive strategies to improve literacy. Fairfax found that even schools with a high incidence of poverty and English as a second language students could achieve literacy results for Hispanic children close to the school-system average. The keys were full-day kindergarten combined with a focus on literacy, properly trained and motivated teachers, and appropriate instructional materials and strategies.

At P.S. 94 in Brooklyn, where 95 percent of the students are English Language Learners (ELL), the principal has achieved impressive results using a focused literacy program. Seventy-five percent of his ELL kindergarten students can move right into an English monolingual classroom.

By middle and high school, students who had been in Fairfax schools since kindergarten were generally passing their state exams and achieving at grade level. An influx of immigrant students from Central and South America and the Caribbean in the secondary school grades present a much tougher challenge.

One result: Hispanic 16- to 24-year-olds born outside the United States drop out at a rate more than triple that of U.S.-born Hispanics.

But even here, we can improve. Fairfax offers four ways to earn a regular high school diploma. For example, high- stakes testing and the standards movement have forced most high schools to abandon traditional vocational education. Fairfax integrated vocational and academic subjects so students learn marketable job skills while earning a regular high school diploma. Other programs encourage Hispanic students to go to college.

Combined, the effect of these and other programs was dramatic: More than 93 percent of the Hispanic students attending Fairfax's 24 regular high schools received standard diplomas in 2003.

Beyond regular high school programs, Fairfax schools offer students flexible day and evening schedules with individualized instruction. One example is the Woodson Adult High School, which operates from 4 to 9:30 p.m. for students 18 and over and is free to age 22.

But the schools can't do it all. We must motivate Hispanic students to stay in school and believe in themselves. Knowing that role models are essential, I recounted my own story to emphasize that, if I could succeed, so could others.

In addition, we must convince the kids' parents. Lacking an education and often speaking little English, many Hispanic parents see minimal value in a high school diploma, let alone a college degree. Even if they cannot help their children do their homework, they can encourage them to stay in school - just as my parents encouraged me.

By taking steps that have proved successful, we can end the tragedy of failing Hispanic and other minority students. And we can make New York first in the nation, rather than last.

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