As Latino population grows, school districts search for new ways to help student succeed
By Sarah M. Wojcik – The Morning Call
Tere’s one common thread among the immigrant parents that math teacher Christa Wolak has met with during her five years at Allentown’s Newcomer Academy: They care — a lot.
The vast majority of students at the special Allentown School District facility, a school dedicated to preparing non-English speaking students for public education, are Latino. And Wolak said the school’s staff has learned that engaging the entire family is an essential part of helping each student succeed.
From movie nights to sprawling holiday feasts, the east Allentown school, serving students from seventh to 12th grades, has taken an already unique program to the next level by going beyond the classroom.
“Of the families I meet with at Newcomer, rarely do I find the parents don’t care,” she said. “I see families pleased and grateful and thankful that their children are getting a good education.”
It’s an educational philosophy that could prove essential for more and more districts as an increasing number of Latino children fill classrooms across the Lehigh Valley.
Over the last five years, the number of school-age children in the Lehigh Valley has shrunk by 4.6 percent, according to the latest figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau. At the same time, the number of Hispanic children in that population has increased by 15.6 percent.
For kids under the age of 5, the total population has dipped by 5.6 percent since 2010, but the number of Hispanic youngsters grew by 15.1 percent.
This trend moves across all age groups — Hispanic millennials have increased 18.6 percent and baby boomers by 26.6 percent. By 2030, one in three people in the U.S. will be Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau.
Larger school districts such as Allentown and Bethlehem have long laid the foundation for programs and support services. But the growing Hispanic population has placed more pressure on districts to create success stories and has steadily folded suburban schools into the mix.
Latino children, part of the fastest growing ethnic minority in the country, still face serious education hurdles, according to a 2015 report by the Child Trends Hispanic Institute.
Though enrollment in early education programs is on the rise, Latino children are still the least likely to be ready for kindergarten.
Despite a 61 percent increase in the number of Latino kids who score at or above the proficient level in math, the number of children who reach that goal is only 21 percent.
And although dropout rates for Latinos have been declining, they’re still among the highest — one in four freshmen will not graduate high school.
In addition, nearly one-third of the nation’s Hispanic kids live in poverty and about a quarter are living in crowded households, the report says.
Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy said the diversity makes for more vibrant schools, but it’s essential that the district provide students with extra support to ensure success.
This often means reaching out to families to make sure they’re engaged in their children’s academics, Roy said. But it can also mean, especially for immigrant families, helping families navigate the housing and job market and connecting them with community organizations that could help bring stability to the household.
“Otherwise, you have kids showing up with zero support,” he said.
Bethlehem’s Center for Language Assessment, Roy said, is dedicated to making sure that doesn’t happen with the students in the district.
Ce-Ce Gerlach, vice president of the Allentown School Board, is a strong believer in the extra foundation that programs such as the Newcomer Academy provide, but said more can be done.
“We need to think outside the box and be willing to try things that might fail,” Gerlach said.
Roughly, 38 percent of Bethlehem students and 68 percent of Allentown students identify as Hispanic. That’s much higher than say, the 12 percent in the Parkland School District. But the increase in the suburbs has been dramatic for some districts. Since the 2009-10 school year, the percentage of Hispanic students in Parkland has doubled. In the Salisbury Township School District, the population went from 4.2 percent to 12 percent.
“Sometimes those shifts can seem greater, just because we’re a smaller population to begin with,” said Salisbury Superintendent Randy Ziegenfuss.
Parkland and Salisbury are among the schools that have joined the Greater Lehigh Valley Consortium for Excellence and Equity— aimed at closing achievement gaps by exchanging best practices and implementing innovative ways to tackle stubborn problems. Roy is chairman of the group that’s modeled on a similar consortium in the Delaware Valley.
Suburban schools hope to help struggling Latino students by addressing the low-income population as a whole. Salisbury is confronting hunger problems with pilot breakfast programs and a lack of technology at home with their 1:1 technology initiative. Parkland is addressing achievement gaps, especially in reading, by rolling out a full-day kindergarten program this fall that leaders believe will lift up test scores for economically disadvantaged students.
But, Selma Caal, research scientist with the Maryland-based Child Trends Hispanic Institute, said educators shouldn’t discount how wading into the Latino culture itself can mean progress for students. Latino families, particularly those from the Caribbean, are used to staying out of the education field — deferring to teachers and administrators on almost all issues. The parental advocacy that’s become a mainstay of American education can be a foreign concept, Caal said.
“Here it’s so important for parents and the school to work together,” she said. “While Latino parents have high, high aspirations for their children, the challenge is that parents might not have the tools to know how to support that because of the disconnect of the educational systems. Schools can help parents understand that they are allies.”
Studies have shown that when Latino families are told about the advantages of early childhood education and how they can begin building academic skills at home, those guardians are enthusiastic and willing participants, Caal said.
“The desire is there. What can help that desire come into realization is letting the parents know how they can help — give them tools and knowledge,” she said.
Knowing how students might respond to educators can be helpful, too. A fourth-grader who won’t engage in a class discussion might look to a teacher like a shy, or worse, disinterested student. But Caal said he could be showing the kind of deference to authority instilled by his parents.
Increasingly, Caal said, schools want to make these connections. But professional development must be made specific to truly make a difference, she said.
James Braxton Peterson, associate professor of English and director of Africana studies at Lehigh University, looks at the big picture. The Lehigh Valley’s leadership should better reflect the diversity of its demographics — something he said has been slow to happen.
“What we’re coming to realize is that we’re behind the curve,” he said. “The problem is, people have resisted. This kind of concerted effort will take a generation to move the needle.”
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