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Closing the Latino Student Achievement Gap

Author: Cathryn Creno

Her parents grew up in Mexico and never had the opportunity to finish high school. Her older brother never felt comfortable in American schools. He dropped out to go to work.

Needless to say, Alicia Flores was more than a little nervous when she walked through the doors of the 2,100-student Camelback High School in the Phoenix Union High School District three years ago.

“I was intimidated,” recalls Flores, who is now a junior, takes honors and Advanced Placement classes and intends to go to the University of Arizona to study veterinary medicine.

“I didn’t know anything when I first got here. I didn’t even know how to find my classes.”

It might have been easy for Flores to fall into the same pattern as her older brother and other Arizona Latino teens, who leave high school either before graduating -- or without taking the difficult classes they need for postsecondary success.

But teacher Patrick Bass was not about to let that happen to Flores or any of the other 25 students he has in a daily class called Advisory, which serves as a home room, study hall, tutoring hour and a family of sorts for Camelback students. 

“Advisory is home base,” Bass said. “It’s where our students have a chance to decompress, recharge and refresh themselves before embarking upon the other half of their day.”

Although Bass’ primary job is teaching 11th grade English, he devotes time every day to tracking the grades and attendance of his Advisory students and helping kids find solutions when things are going wrong. He has even been known to send text messages to kids who are absent and ask where they are.

“We know that kids who become successful often point to a relationship with a caring adult who was responsible for their success or failure,” said Chad Gestson, who was principal of Camelback when Advisory started six years ago and now is Phoenix Union’s superintendent. More than 80 percent of the district’s students are Latinos.

Advisory is just one of many programs Arizona schools offer to help Latino and other struggling students stay in school until they graduate with skills and plans to attend college or postsecondary career training.

None of the programs claim to be a panacea. For most, any data is too new to show much beyond the trend that individual kids like Flores are thriving with additional help. 

In its 2012 report “Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona’s Economic Future,” Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute of Public Policy indicated that curriculum rigor and quality and caring teachers were key tools for bridging the achievement gap. 

Curriculum rigor is the cornerstone of Ready Now Yuma, a partnership between Yuma Union High School District and Helios Education Foundation. The initiative was recognized recently as a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education by the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics.

Yuma Union Superintendent Antonia Badone describes Ready Now Yuma as a cultural shift for the district, which is more than 80 percent Latino. Ready Now Yuma requires all students to take Cambridge Curriculum college prep classes, opening the doors to Advanced Placement classes to all students – and allows everyone to take Career and Technical Education classes as well. 

An early initiative strategy, Badone said, was eliminating high school pre-algebra classes. Now all students start out in regular algebra – kids who start out behind are given extra help while they catch up. 

“I come from a Hispanic family of five” said Arianda Martinez, who is preparing for a computer science career. Technically, she already is a graduate of Yuma High, having completed requirements for Arizona’s early graduation Grand Canyon Diploma with her school’s Cambridge classes last year.  

“My parents worked in agriculture and never got past middle school. I'll be the first in my family to go to college.”

This semester, Martinez is taking Advanced Placement human geography and Spanish classes at Yuma High as well as English 102 and a computer information systems class at Arizona Western College near the high school. She plans to attend a four-year university next year. 

“In the future, I see myself working with computers in a government agency,” she said. 

“Our educational culture world-wide is about ‘sorting’ students,” Badone said.

“The Ready Now Yuma approach runs counter to that tradition. Teachers were initially somewhat worried about being judged based on students’ exam results.  We have not evaluated teachers’ based on their students’ performance on Cambridge exams or AP exams or ACT.  We are infusing a culture of lifelong learning and a tradition of every student doing challenging work.”

Phoenix Union, its feeder elementary districts and a number of human service organizations are in the early stages of starting a similar initiative in the metropolitan area.

A key effort of Thriving Together (a collective impact initiative funded in part by Helios Education Foundation) is analyzing what works in Phoenix schools and replicating it elsewhere, said former director Anel Mercado.

“We don’t need to go to Boston to find out how to close the achievement gap in Phoenix,” she said. “There are great schools right here that we can turn to.” 

Helios invested $375,000 in Thriving Together, whose mission is to build a robust community and economy through collective action that fosters success from birth to career for every child, youth and young adult. The initiative aims to change the course for 250,000 children living in the Phoenix metropolitan area - students who are in the Phoenix Union High School and feeder district boundaries. 

“Making progress toward closing the Latino student achievement gap won’t happen without a willingness from all sectors of our community – business, government, philanthropy, education – to work together to ensure more students have opportunities to complete a postsecondary certificate or degree,” said Paul Luna, Helios Education Foundation’s President and CEO. “This issue must be a top priority on our state’s agenda. If we don’t, we close the door on opportunity, and step into a future of economic and social peril.”

Click to read Part One and Part Two of the Latino Student Success series. 

Category: College and Career Readiness, Education Issues, Postsecondary Success

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