Latino Student Success: Providing the Right Learning Opportunities

Dr. Frances Contreras is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington in the College of Education in Leadership and Policy Studies. Dr. Contreras presently researches issues of equity and access for underrepresented students in the education pipeline. She addresses transitions between K-12 and higher education, community college transfer, faculty diversity, affirmative action in higher education, and the role of the public policy arena in higher education access for underserved students of color. Dr. Contreras received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Educational Administration & Policy Analysis, Master of Education from Harvard University, and B.A. from University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Contreras has co-authored a book with Dr. Patricia Gándara entitled The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies (Harvard Press, 2009). In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Dr. Contreras discusses the book, as well as her current research with Latino middle and high school students in Washington State.

More from Dr. Contreras

Dr. Contreras has written additional articles and books featured on Colorín Colorado and is also included in our Meet the Experts Podcast Series, in which she discusses the importance of mentors, extra-curricular activities, and a strong college-going culture for Latino students, in addition to her parents' influence on her educational achievement.  

Latinos in Washington State

You are originally from California, which offers a lot of opportunities to study Latinos and education. Is there something that drew you to the state of Washington instead?

One reason I decided to continue my research at the University of Washington is that the state is going through some fascinating changes right now — we're in the middle of a dramatic population boom, and currently, approximately 20% of kindergarten students statewide are Latino. In 15 years, we'll resemble a state like California, with Latino students being the largest minority group within the K-12 population.

We need to be thinking about how to better serve our students, and how we are communicating about student opportunities so that all students have access to the same information. If Latino students don't receive information about higher education opportunities, we can't be surprised if they don't pursue the options that we know are out there.

Part of what appealed to me in coming to Washington is that because the Latino population is rapidly growing, there is an opportunity to be a voice in the policy arena and to shape policy as it is being created, which helps the state stay ahead of the curve. In states like California, Texas, and Arizona, there is a much more established Latino community, and there is an entire history of educational and social policies, some of which have worked, and some of which haven't.

These states have been the foundation for addressing what the best practices are because this history of policy offers a precedent; but in Washington, there is much more room to try some other ideas and to be creative and avoid the missteps of other states. For Washington these issues are relatively new, and while a lot of decisions have already been made that affect Latino students, the slate is still fairly clean when compared with other statewide educational systems.

Why is the Latino population growing so rapidly in Washington?

We have a wide range of industries that are employing Latinos. In rural areas, many Latinos work in the agricultural sector. Migrant workers are coming to work in industries such as the cultivation of asparagus, apples, and cherries; in the urban communities such as Seattle, many Latinos are working in hotels and restaurants, and as a result the Seattle school district has seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of Latino students and English language learners.

Has your research allowed you to go into the schools to see how these changes are being addressed?

Yes. Right now, I am running a statewide study on learning opportunities for middle and high school Latino students for the Commission on Hispanic Affairs. This has largely been framed as an examination of the achievement gap, but we have also kept a more constructive model in mind so that we are not working from a deficit model, but rather an opportunity model. That is, we are examining the learning opportunities for Latino students in Washington at multiple levels.

We currently have 7 research assistants under me, and we started our data collection process late September in 8 school districts and 14 schools throughout the state. The project lasted one semester, so we're now finishing our work in the schools. This research design and model was purposeful. In past work with the Latino community, I realized that if we were going to develop meaningful relationships with students and better understand what we need to do to support their academic success, we need to go to them, rather than making them come to us. So we looked for high concentrations of Latino students, and sought to hear directly from the key stakeholders in the education system: students, parents and teachers.

What does the project include?

The project has a number of components. First we are analyzing trends and patterns of Latino student achievement from several secondary sources of data. Secondly, we surveyed teachers, students and parents. We surveyed Latino teachers, who make up just 2.7% of the Washington K-12 teaching population; and then we surveyed teachers at each school we've worked in. We surveyed students in 8th grade and 10th grade math classes and held focus groups so we could hear from them directly. Finally, we surveyed parents, scheduled parent nights and community events, and held parent focus groups so that we could hear about their experiences with the Washington schools.

What did you learn from students?

The students we spoke with wanted to succeed, but they weren't always given the tools they needed both in home and in school. For example, there are some good programs in the state intended to improve college readiness, such as the Running Start program, in which Washington students do very well. Through this program, high school students can achieve college credit by taking some extra courses outside of school. Not many Latinos, however, are part of the program. I interviewed one group of high school students who had never heard of the program, and had never been encouraged to apply for it.

We need to be thinking about how to better serve our students, and how we are communicating about student opportunities so that all students have access to the same information. If Latino students don't receive information about higher education opportunities, we can't be surprised if they don't pursue the options that we know are out there.

I think we also need to make sure that Latino students and their families have access to the same information as their peers. This requires that all materials are translated for parents in Spanish for those parents who do not yet have command of the English Language. For some Latino students, community college may be the best option, but for some other students, they may in fact be ready for a four-year institution and then never get the chance to apply because they only received information about community colleges from their guidance counselors.

What were you hearing from the teachers you spoke with about Latino students and English language learners?

I met some teachers who were bilingual, and interviewed teachers who were setting positive examples for how to communicate with parents and seek culturally relevant work for students. One teacher in particular called the Latino parents personally, and when planning instruction was always seeking out texts from Latino authors with age appropriate content, such as Gary Soto.

Many teachers I met, however, were very concerned about their students, and about the language barrier; a few teachers I spoke with felt badly that they couldn't speak Spanish, and they were worried about how much information the students were (or weren't) grasping; some teachers said that they used the high achieving Spanish-speaking students to convey critical content to their peers to make sure that everyone understood the content. This finding was disconcerting, because students are not qualified to convey math content. There is no replacement for the teacher in this case. The limited number of bilingual teachers in the schools was also a consistent feature in the schools we were in. We also spoke with a number of math teachers (since we surveyed students from math classes) who were very concerned about their inability address cultural needs, or the fact that they couldn't adequately communicate with parents.

What kinds of support staff did the schools you worked in have?

We saw a wide range of staffing; one rural school had four bilingual teachers and an ESL teacher; they all met together and discussed content and infrastructure, and they could work together to help each other in many areas. The collaborative efforts they described also extended to the other middle schools in the district, where math teachers shared ideas and approaches to pedagogy regularly.

At a different district however, the middle school and high school had one Latino teacher between them, and they shared this bilingual Latino teacher. None of the other teachers spoke Spanish, so there was no one to support the students or parents when they needed it. Schools like this one were more common, and these schools relied on students to translate for their peers and their parents. We also saw schools relying heavily on paraprofessionals for academic, content, and language support, as well as on other school staff for help with translations. This is problematic because paraprofessionals are not certified to provide instruction in the classroom, but they are sometimes relied upon to teach the students if they are bilingual.

What kinds of instruction programs did you see?

We saw some different kinds of programs, but it seemed that the schools didn't always have a clear sense of how to effectively implement their target instruction model. Many students we observed were in a sink or swim situation, and unfortunately some of the schools we visited didn't have the information or resources to provide the level of academic support needed to make sure that their ELLs received equitable education.

Latino Family Engagement

What did you find in your work with parents?

Latino parents are like other parents in this country — they want the best for their children. However, many Latino parents, especially newer immigrants, don't always know how to participate in our school system. We heard many parents say that they came to this country to give their children a good education in the U.S. public school system, but they didn't know how to be advocates. For undocumented parents there is definitely anxiety and fear regarding deportation and family separation, given the anti-immigrant sentiment in the state and nation.

In addition, while we were exposed to as many as 1200 parents, we probably will end up with about 300 written surveys. Even though I anticipated lower literacy rates when working with some of our immigrant families, I didn't realize how pervasive the issue would be; we met parents hadn't gotten beyond the 3rd grade in Mexico, so even having the materials in Spanish wasn't necessarily always a help. That's why we turned our attention to the focus groups so that parents had an opportunity to participate in discussion verbally and in Spanish.

What did the parents want to talk about?

We heard a lot of frustration and questions at the same time — even those parents that were fully literate in Spanish weren't necessarily getting information from the school in Spanish, so they didn't know when PTA meetings were even though they wanted to attend. They also did not know what the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) was, nor did they understand the importance of standardized exams in the schooling of their children.

As a result, parents didn't know how the results of this statewide exam are used; they just know that their child's self esteem plummeted when the results came back. This is a critical exam at the high school level because it's currently serving as an exit exam for graduation. Right now only 11.7% of 10th grade ELLs are meeting the Math standard, 38.2% meeting the Reading standard, 47.6% meeting the Writing standards, and a mere 3.7% meeting the Science Standard. Latino students in general are not faring much better than their ELL peers with low WASL passing rates. This ultimately influences their options for college, and so the WASL has become an important exam for parents and students alike to understand.

One thing that has become clear after speaking with so many parents is that our schools need to do a better job communicating with parents, and finding how to do so effectively (phone calls for some, fliers for others, etc.). Some schools have made it a priority, and they are reaping the benefits with greater parent participation. Others haven't, and as a result, all parties — administrators, teachers, students, and parents — are struggling.

In Seattle, a Latino community organization, Campaña Quetzal, along with local parents, has taken this problem head on, and they have formed a Padres Promotores program for parents. They are doing really important work by bringing educators and families together to talk about the issues facing Latino students in urban Washington; however that initiative had to come from the community, because their district had not yet taken the steps to include them.

What were some of the challenges families said they were facing?

Unfortunately, there is a growing problem with gang activity, and of course parents are very concerned about this. At one of the schools I visited there was a lockdown while I was there, and the worst part was that kids didn't even react. This is normal for them; funerals have become regular events. What's interesting is that gang activity is still relatively new in Washington, so it's not like California where many generations now have belonged to gangs. Nevertheless, getting involved with gangs is happening very early, at a very young age, and I think it's a coping mechanism for a lot of young people who are unsure of their future or who find security in these groups, particularly our young Latino men. That doesn't justify gang involvement, but it means we need to do a better job as a community and within our own families of keeping an open dialogue with our young people. We also need to help the parents play an active role in the lives of their children, so that they can help keep their children on the path to a better future.

What were some of the successes that you found?

When I visited one middle school, which was in a more rural area, I learned that the students develop an academic plan for themselves and then participate in student-led conferences with teachers and parents. The student was responsible for planning his/her academic career, and so conferences involved the student, parent, and teacher sitting down to discuss an academic plan. (The major concern I had was the need for a professional translator in this setting. If the teacher did not understand or speak Spanish and was relying on the student to translate, there was no way of knowing what was being conveyed to the parent. To ensure integrity in this process, a professional translator should be available to assist in these conferences to make sure there is no miscommunication on the part of the teacher or student to the parent.)

In this setting, students had to come up with two learning plans — the first was a five-year plan, and the second was a ten-year plan. They had to think about high school, college, and a career as part of their long-term goals; then they had to lay out the high school classes they needed to take to reach those goals and become that person. It is essentially a personal life plan in 8th grade.

I hadn't seen this level of dialogue in other schools, but it's made a big difference because the teacher now has engaged the students in conversation about their future, and the parents are made aware of the aspirations of their children. Most importantly, though, it sends the message that the student can achieve that goal, that going to college is absolutely an expectation they should have, and that the decisions the student makes will affect whether the goal is met. The plan gives them ownership over their future, and says "You need to take the wheel; now is the time to do it, before you even get to high school."

Right now we're so focused on making sure kids don't drop out of high school that we are not looking beyond high school graduation — everything stops after high school. We aren't pushing kids to think about college enrollment early, because a high school diploma has become the end goal. One of the Latino teachers commented in her survey about this problem. College has to be the message as early as possible — otherwise these Latino youth will not likely consider higher education to be an option for themselves.

Book: "The Latino Education Crisis"

What you describe is the focus of The Latino Education Crisis. What motivated you and Patricia to write it?

Part of the motivation came from reading through report after report on Latinos and the achievement gap; what we realized was that we didn't find the real hard-cutting, timely analysis (both quantitative and qualitative) on what could be done to address these issues, so that's what we set out to do in our book. Patricia has been engaged in these issues at the research and policy level as a leading scholar in the field, and she really pushed for practical policy solutions that could be put into practice by local and national leaders.

The book is titled The Latino Education Crisis because we feel that this nation is facing a crisis. It's a tricky line to walk — we wanted to be realistic and optimistic at the same time, and to present this crisis as an opportunity. The book is not intended to be alarmist, although we heard some initial concern from educators that we were focusing on a deficit model, which is not the case. We frame the crisis as an opportunity to invest in our future, but we are trying to be realistic because the students we're talking about are the future of country — yet we're not seeing our future in them yet.

The fact remains that more than half of Latinos drop out of high school, and far too few go onto and graduate from college. This has tremendous implications for the social and economic opportunities not only for the Latino community, but also for the nation. As a country, we aren't thinking about these issues adequately, and that's why Patricia and I partnered on this book. We wanted to present an accurate picture on the severity of the crisis, and to offer some policy recommendations on the things we can do now to change the current situation of underinvestment in the human capital of Latino youth.

What are some of the areas you focus on in the book?

We have a chapter in the book called "Beating the Odds," in which we talk about Latino students who do beat the odds. It's really a tenuous path for Latinos to graduate from college; it is not clear cut, and often Latino students take an untraditional path on their way through college. Many Latino students continue working through college to support their families, and as Latinos are typically debt averse (which is generally a good trait), it means that they may not pursue financial aid or college loans, and they apply a "pay as you go" model, which means they take longer to graduate. Given these untraditional time frames — maybe taking 6 or 8 years to finish an undergraduate degree — and the way we measure outcomes of graduation rates, Latino student successes aren't always accurately represented.

One way to address this issue is through better data tracking and systems. Texas has invested in a sophisticated data tracking system, so that they can follow a student from kindergarten through college. While this is expensive, it is so important, because otherwise it's so hard to figure out what is and isn't working. Tracking data in Washington, for example, is a tremendous challenge; there has been very little investment in tracking the language development, academic records, and graduation rates of Latinos and other English language learners. Some of the teachers are pushing for a more seamless system, so that we can more fully understand achievement, but in the meantime students are just getting lost.

How is the education of Latino students affected by the immigration debate?

The immigration debate is preventing us from realizing that Latino and ELL students are going to play such an important role in our future. We now have large numbers of Latino students all over the nation, but we have not been willing to invest in them or their future yet — even though it is our future, and our economic well-being will depend on their success. Another challenge is that as schools look at their budget shortfalls, how we will become a voice at the table, especially in districts where there is strong anti-immigrant sentiment? In a time of economic hardship, how do we make sure we are investing in our future when people are trying to stay afloat?

These questions are tough. The next census is going to be really important, because it has the potential to show just how much the Latino population has grown. Even in the past 8 years, the growth has been tremendous, but Latinos are undercounted. There are huge blocks of Latino communities in areas we hadn't thought of, like in New England and North Carolina. They played a major role in this past election as well, but we can't look at Latinos just as a voting block. We have to go beyond that. We have to look at members of the Latino community differently — we have to see ourselves — as equal members of society and a major part of our country's economic engine.

I think it's time to reframe the debate to take a more well-rounded look at these issues — economic, social, educational, and cultural — and also to think about the current economic crisis is going to affect immigration issues and communities where immigrant populations are growing.

Community Colleges and Higher Education

College has to be the message as early as possible – otherwise these Latino youth will not likely consider higher education to be an option for themselves.

You mentioned community colleges earlier. What is the role of community colleges in higher education for Latinos?

The overwhelming majority of Latinos in four-year institutions start in a community college, so we need to focus on establishing a seamless continuum. What factors affect a state's transfer rate from community college to a four-year institution? Some states have established effective partnerships between community college and the state university system, but it takes a lot of follow-through to make sure that students can make those transfers successfully.

Is there a student that you've seen succeed who started at a community college?

I have a graduate student who started at a community college and is now applying for her Ph.D. She is a good example of how a community college can make all the difference in the world. As a community college student, she found two things; first, she had excellent and determined mentors who worked with her and helped her navigate the transfer process once she had decided to go to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she worked with the undergraduate research program. Secondly, she found out that her community college courses were rigorous, challenging, and prepared her for her future undergraduate and graduate work. We don't give community colleges the credit they deserve for their rigor, but they can provide academically challenging and engaging classes to high-achieving students, as well as the support that students of all abilities may need.

Are you seeing a lot of ESL instruction in your local community colleges?

Students at the University of Washington start in supplemental ESL courses at the local community colleges, but the demand is so high, that it's very tough to get classes in the sequence they need. There is a lot of demand for ESL classes from the external community, not just the local high school graduates and college students. There are some effective partnerships, but we need to do a lot more. The class numbers are high — some of the parents I spoke with were in classes of 40+ students, which is not effective for language instruction.

How did you get into the field of researching Latino students and higher education?

My father was a teamster so he was involved in the labor movement and the union, fighting for health care and advocating livable wages. My father always stressed education, and college was a given; there was no other option.

And that made a big difference to have that message at home, because I wasn't getting that message at school. During my senior year, even though I had been accepted to many campuses of the University of California, and I ran a lot of the school clubs, I was told that I should start college close to home, and that I should try other options. Fortunately, I didn't heed that advice, and I had a successful undergraduate career at Berkeley before going on to graduate work and my Ph.D.

While in college, I realized there were very few Latino students on campus, even at Berkeley, so I became involved in MEChA. I was also a McNair scholar in college, where I worked with Dr. Rachel Moran from the Law School. My community and school involvement allowed me to look for internships that gave me the opportunity to work directly with the Latino community. When I was 19, I applied for an internship with Latino Issues Forum, where I worked on education policy issues. It was where I found my passion: working on education policy issues and pushing equity and community advocacy on behalf of my fellow students. It was also there where I met wonderful mentors, including John Gamboa, Dr. Roberto Haro, and Ortensia Lopez.

Of course, this was also the time that another wave of anti-immigrant sentiment was taking California by storm with Propositions 187, 209, and 227. These past and current debates continue to shape my research agenda and my desire to serve Latino students.

What can ELL teachers do to encourage their students' success?

While are many things at the classroom and academic level that teachers can do, perhaps the most important thing is to believe that Latino students can achieve, and to reinforce what is possible instead of what isn't. Teachers can play such a powerful role in a student's life, whether it's positive or negative. Their comments and attention go such a long way. There are many supportive and concerned teachers out there working with minority students, but there are others who have internalized the stereotypes and the message that the student doesn't care and doesn't want to learn. It's so important to not get caught up in those stereotypes from the community or from the media that may come, especially when students themselves have already internalized them.

Little things go a long way, like making positive comments on papers handed back, or taking the time to critique work, or not being dismissive by assuming students don't want to go to college or graduate. Far too many Latino students have heard that they aren't ready for college, and they believe this message. We have to tell students that they can achieve and they can overcome language barriers, and then help them start thinking about and preparing for college very early. Being hopeful and bringing a positive message goes a long way.

We also need to think about the impact of culture — some districts engage in cultural awareness training and professional development for teachers and staff, and others are trying to include more literary texts by Latino authors so that students see a reflection of themselves in the curriculum.

The other thing teachers can do is to try to relate to Latino parents on a more personal level, as partners. Parents want their children to succeed and to become a productive member of society, no matter the language or the culture. We need to keep those doors open so that teachers, parents, and students can all be more engaged and accountable, and so that we can address the needs of parents, whether it's having a parent liaison call home or finding a way to translate school documents into different languages and making that a priority.

What are you working on now?

I have another upcoming book called The Brown Paradox: Latinos and Education Policy in the United States with Teachers College Press due in 2009. In this book, I'm tackling the educational and public policies that have influenced Latino education, such as anti-affirmative action policies, financial aid policies, testing, and accountability.

It's a second step following my book with Patricia; I use the word paradox because Latinos are the fastest-growing population, and with that comes tremendous opportunity, but right now we're doing nothing to invest in this student population and take notice in a serious way of their needs.

How are we going to take tangible steps to turn the current story around? The education system is the primary vehicle for mobility and economic stability for families and communities. I am hopeful that my research efforts will help to shape the educational policy arena in a way that positively affects Latino students and all disadvantaged youth who require additional academic support to successfully progress through the P-20* education continuum.

*pre-K through college

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