Dr. Frances Contreras
Dr. Contreras discusses the Latino education crisis and strategies for getting minority students on the path to college.
To learn more about Dr. Contreras, take a look at Latino Student Success: Providing the Right Learning Opportunities, as well as her featured books and articles on Colorín Colorado.
Giselle: Welcome to the Colorín Colorado podcast series, Meet the Experts. I'm Giselle Lundy-Ponce, and I'm here with Dr. Frances Contreras, a Professor and Researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. She's here to talk about Latino students and the high school to higher education connection. Thank you so much for being here, Dr. Contreras. So, tell us about the current state of Latino students and higher education in America. How many would you say go onto college? How many graduate from high school?
Dr. Contreras: Well, right now we're dealing with essentially a crisis with respect to the dropout rate. It's over 50 percent. And this is citing the work that Gary Oldfield and Chris Swanson, in that it was approximately 54 percent dropout rate for Latinos. Of that number, we lose about half going onto college. The majority of Latinos that do start college start at the community college level, roughly 60 percent. So it's 60 percent of the students that start will start at the two-year colleges. But I would say that about a quarter of the students that do graduate from high school will go onto higher education.
Giselle: Why do so few Latino students go onto college? What have you learned from your research?
Dr. Contreras: I think the problem lies in a whole host of factors. And it's largely based on the book with Patricia Gandara that we just completed on why Latinos aren't going to college. And what we did was we looked at several factors. So we looked at the social context for education that cites high poverty rates for students as they go from preschool to the K-12 system and then onto higher education. So we look at all these different segments of the education system, P-16, what people call the continuum.
And we looked at the social context for education, the school context for education. And so within those contexts are multiple barriers ranging from lower socioeconomic statuses of the household as well as limited resources within the schools and lack of access to a college preparatory curriculum. So there's a whole host of factors with that loaded question. But essentially, given these different factors of why students don't have access while they're going through the school system as well as limited access to health care or social services in the community, it suggests that there are a great deal of impediments as they begin to transition from or even think about high school to college.
In fact, many youth don't think about college until very, very late in their school career and that's far too late. We know that the courses that signal for students to go onto college - that course planning happens in middle school. And so if they're thinking about college at the high school level, it's far too late. And we've already kind of lost them. So their opportunities will be limited.
Giselle: So given all the challenges that you have mentioned, what specifically would you say that middle schools and high schools have to do to help Latino students graduate?
Dr. Contreras: Well, you know, first, I think it's an issue of ... and I talk about this in some of my research about the policy arena and high stakes, the nature of high stakes testing. But also, it's a question of access to curriculum. And so that course planning very early on in middle school, that's something that we actually can influence, that we can do something about. In terms of signaling to students the courses they need to take, so they'll be prepared for college. Even if they may not think about college yet. Just so they have this as a possibility.
So that early course planning is critical at the middle school level and for it to continue on through high school. The majority of students that drop out from high school do so at a very young age. They do so between the ninth and tenth grade. And so if we can catch those students early, get them in a more challenging curriculum early on and signal to them that you've been chosen to go to college. If we raise these expectations for these students, then they might see this as a greater possibility in their future.
Giselle:So what would you say would be the ideal transition collaboration system or program between high schools and institutions of higher education to help these students along?
Dr. Contreras: Well, I'm not sure if I've witnessed an ideal program out there. But there are some very, very good programs that connect and work with the higher education and K-12 systems. And I think we need to see more of that connection. But what I have seen work ideally are those practices where teachers are engaged with higher education leaders. They're involved in talking about the curriculum. Often times what happens with higher education is that they put the blame on the K-12 system. And the K-12 system lifts up their hands and says what can we do?
But essentially, it really does take a concerted effort and considered investment ... a considerable investment for the students to be able to transition. And so what has worked is engaging parents, engaging high school teachers and leaders as well as faculty members. And higher ed administrators in the process. Meaning that it's a real collaboration. Meaning it's not just handing down information. It's actual sharing of information and dialoguing.
Some programs that exist that have been highly successful and have been evaluated are the Puente program that actually connects mentors and has a direct line to mentors in a higher education institution for students at the high school level. So there's high school Puente. And then there's the college level Puente at community colleges. And so there's this seamless continuum of students that are in the pipeline, that are engaged with students at different levels. And so these high school students let's say will be exposed to college students.
Those are programs that are ideal. Because these students can see themselves in the doors of higher education later. And then the administration that exists in the higher ed institutions support the applications of those high school students. And so it's this ongoing dialogue and communication. And, of course, they engage the parents in that discussion. So it seems to be a very healthy program and relationship.
Giselle: Now, if we were to look at the classroom level, imagine that you're an eager new high school teacher. And she's got English language learners in her, say, tenth grade history class. What can she do to help to put them on the path to college?
Dr. Contreras: I think there's a tremendous potential that teachers have with respect to the influence they have over their students in terms of motivating students and in terms of giving them information that's pretty critical to their course planning. And one of the pieces of data that we found in interviewing for our book, Patricia and myself, we found that students overwhelmingly discussed these pivotal experiences with their teachers.
Whether or not it was a negative experience or a positive experience, that teacher hand selected them and helped them plan their math courses. Or a teacher commented on the color of their skin, which would be a negative experience. But teachers really do play this crucial role in the self-perception of Latino youth. And so recognizing for a teacher of English learners that they have the potential to really motivate and help shape someone's self-perception is a pretty powerful ... is a pretty powerful role that they play.
Giselle: So what other concrete ideas would you have for teachers who are encouraging their English language learners to go on to higher education?
Dr. Contreras: In terms of practical suggestions, you know, it can be small things like having them read, having the students read books from Latino authors or articles from Latino authors, showing them profiles of successful Latinos from magazines, Spanish magazines, for example. You know, actually telling them when you get to college. So that it's already assumed, that the expectation's already there.
And that's one of the things that was done to me in graduate school. When you are the leaders of different departments of states. I mean, these were the statements that were told to us in graduate school. And I never thought of myself that way. But so when a teacher's talking to their high school students, when you graduate from college, these students are already setting these expectations up for themselves. So actually just telling them when you're a college graduate, you will have these choices. So that these students believe and start to own that identity for themselves.
Giselle: And I think that people often underestimate the power of one, the power of one teacher to make that big difference in their lives. Tell us a student success story you've come across. I know that you've interviewed many, many students. And the student voices often gets lost in the research, in the theoretical information that teachers get. So tell us about a student in particular that stands out.
Dr. Contreras: One of my students that ... I have so many that stand out. But I'll tell you about one and the research that has stood out. This young woman came to the United States when she was a baby. And so she essentially grew up here in this country. And she describes throughout the course of her interview her experiences in the K-12 system and how she ended up where she is. And her experience now, looking back, I mean, she cleaned homes throughout her high school career. She ended up in a high achieving track by the graces of God, she says.
By essentially this one teacher hand-picked her and looked at how she was planning her courses and actually motivated her to get involved in some activities. Kind of took her by the hand, introduced her to the college counselor. And so when I hear the story of the student, you know, she became active from high school on. Because she realized that she prepared for college far too late. So she wasn't that star student. She calls herself an average student. And now she's one of the most high-achieving students I've come across.
She's researching now in Mexico protest movements. And she's traveling all over, understanding immigration patterns and undocumented students in higher education. And so when I hear stories like that, it really impresses me. Because here's someone whose parents didn't graduate from high school, who didn't have knowledge of this system and pretty much quickly navigated her way through the system with the help of her teachers and the support within her school. And so it just motivates me that the potential exists for students like that to move forward and to continue on with their higher education.
Giselle: That's a remarkable story. And I know in your experience, I've often heard you say that your father used to say that a busy kid is a good kid. And in your research you've been able to look at this and see the connection between extracurricular activities and the success of Latino students. So what would you say about that?
Dr. Contreras: Well, I was really fortunate in terms of growing up. I'll start with that, with my parents. Because they were very, very active in our education. And so I always knew I could fall back on them if I wasn't ... if I didn't have a good experience in school, for example. So we were involved in sports. We were really involved in the community. We would be involved in campaigns for a local city council member. And so my parents played this pivotal role. If we felt that we were being treated unjustly, they would look into it with the school system.
And what I found in terms of my father, he wanted to keep us busy. Because he didn't want us to end up in gangs and didn't want us to end up dropping out like many of my peers and many of our peers in the area. So that's partly why we were so involved in softball and all these different sports and activities. What I found in my research, particularly recently, is that students that are involved in extracurricular sports ... and it's consistent with the literature out there ... students that are involved in extracurricular sports, that they're involved in community service programs. They work. They end up being in that top quintile of Latinos that are achieving on the SAT, for example.
And so it's consistent with the findings of previous research in that the highest-achieving students will tend to be very busy and tend to be involved not only in sports, but also be leaders of clubs in their school. And also find time to do community service and then work. I was surprised, however. One of the extracurricular was the working. I was surprised how high the percentage was with students working, about thirty percent of these high achievers were working. But it wasn't a surprise, for example, to find them involved in an honors program. And it suggests that curriculum as an activity in school plays an important role. And so most of these high achieving kids were also involved in some form of an honors curriculum.
Giselle: Well, along that line, not only were you a very busy kid, but you became an extraordinarily successful young adult. Because I can't imagine that there are very many people out there who have degrees from U.C. Berkeley, Harvard and Stanford. So what did you find that helped you succeed, meet the standards of such demanding higher education institutions?
Dr. Contreras: This is part of some of the consejos I give to kids. Like on Monday, I'm going to go and speak to gear up students. I give them this list of consejos because I want them to kind of be engaged in the talk and also just give them practical applications of some of my research and experiences. And what I found in terms of navigating these education systems is that it's so important to reach out to people. It's so important to find good mentors. In fact, the mentors that I had in undergrad are still my mentors today.
I did my McNair program with Professor Rachel Morand, who is at UC Berkeley. And she's now an endowed chair at the law school. She was an assistant professor at the time. Patricia. I stumbled upon Patricia Gandara at a conference. Gary Oldfield, I did work with him at Harvard. And so I found very, very good mentors. And they believe in my passion. And they believed in my work. And they're out there. And they're not necessarily, they don't have to be Latino.
But you have to be open to the idea of being mentored by someone and then turn around and mentor someone. And while I was being mentored, I was mentoring high school students. Because I realized they made ... my mentors made an incredible difference in my life. You know, starting with my parents. Seeing them being active in the school. My mom volunteered with English learners. My dad going and advocating at the school board level. Those are practices that I witnessed. And I emulated those practices of the adults in my immediate surroundings. And so I've been very, very fortunate.
Dr. Contreras: I tell students in high school that it's a lot of hard work if you decide, of course, to go onto your master's and your Ph.D. But I also tell them at the same time to really believe in the value of delayed gratification meaning that in ten years, in fifteen years, you will see the payoff ten fold from investing in yourself. And you can't make a better investment than investing in yourself. Because you're worth more to your community with your higher education than without it.
Giselle: So you mentioned your consejos or list of advice. And what would they be?
Dr. Contreras: So when I speak to high school students, I like to offer them practical advice. And so, I present a list of consehos or advice for them in terms of what might help them navigate the higher education system. And so they range from, you know, seek a good mentor to finding a good mentor, getting involved in high school. Being involved in student is very, very important if you want to build relationships. Oftentimes, from your peers, you learn the most. Because you can actually fill out applications together, read each other's applications.
So I give them tangibles in terms of advice. Write your statement and purpose out ahead of time. Be good to your fellow peer in terms of the competitiveness. So I give them healthy advice as not only students, but also as individuals as they think about where they're headed in terms of higher education.
Giselle: And so academically, your experience in high school, did you take a lot of advanced placement courses, honors courses?
Dr. Contreras: In my high school at the time, I only had access to about three honors, three AP courses. And then I was involved in an honors curriculum. So, yes. I was involved in an honors curriculum. If I went home with a B, my father would say why didn't you get an A? If I had an A-, my dad would say why didn't you get an A+? And so he was always pushing us to be high-achieving students. Even though my brother was a star athlete, my dad said it's fine to be a star athlete, and my mom as well. But be a star student.
And so there were always those expectations to exceed what you think is possible. So it wasn't okay to just be in a regular curriculum. We had to be in the honors and the AP classes. So, yes. I was. I didn't take the AP test, coincidentally. But I was involved in honors curriculum and thrived to do well. So I always took advantage of whatever opportunities and I tell students I'm like the scholarship girl, that I applied to every scholarship, every opportunity, every program for minority students in higher education. And that's largely what determined my path.
Giselle: What inspires you to continue your hard work in this challenging field?
Dr. Contreras: You know, I think what inspires me are the students essentially. You know, my graduate students as well as when I go out to speak to high school students and their parents, just the possibilities that exist for them. And when I do talk to them, I give them a lot of data. Because that's what I do. I do research on data. And so I provide, unfortunately, some grim statistics. But one of the things I conclude with is this might be the reality today. But it doesn't have to be your tomorrow. It doesn't have to be our tomorrow.
And just by going and graduating high school and going on to college, you are changing the statistics today for tomorrow. And so I'm hopeful that the dropout rates, that we can change the dropout rates. That we can change the state of the limited presence of Latinos in higher education and that we will see more faculty like myself in the near future. Because our community cannot afford to have limited investment in ourselves. About one in four in this country will be Latino by the year 2050, according to the census, one in four. We're headed to a multicultural nation.
And it's beyond about time for Latinos to become educated and to earn their degrees and to go out and mentor others. So that we continue that path and continue students involved in the education arena.
Giselle: Wonderful information. Very practical advice. And I'm sure our teachers will really, really appreciate. So, thank you so much, Dr. Contreras. And thanks to our listeners. We hope you've enjoyed this episode of Meet the Experts, a podcast series from Colorín Colorado.
Giselle: For more information on helping English language learners read and succeed, please visit www.colorincolorado.org. This podcast was made possible by the American Federation of Teachers.
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 has conducted research using the College Board Data on Latino high achievers in the United States, and data on the UC system using individual applicant and admission profiles at select UC Campuses. She has recently completed a manuscript with P. Gandara, "The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies," (Harvard University Press).
In addition to her research and teaching, Dr. Contreras serves on the Board of the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, the Journal of Advanced Academics, and has been appointed by Mayor Nickels as a member of the Families and Education Levy Oversight Committee for the City of Seattle. 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.