Latino Students Face Complex Fight
Studies examine school experience and expose everyday trials
Washington, D.C., native Sofia León, 23, grew up in a household where straight A’s were the norm and a “B” stood for “below what’s expected.” Her father, 60, emigrated from Cuba in the 1960s and brought with him a blend of pressure and encouragement to ensure that Sofia earned a good education.
León’s experience represents a growing consensus among sociologists and developmental psychologists that Latino children enter school with skills comparable to, albeit different from, those of their white counterparts and other minorities.
The Pew Hispanic Center reports that Latinos are the nation’s largest minority ethnic group and account for half the U.S. population growth between 2000 and 2008. D.C.’s Latino population grew almost 14 percent over that same period, making it the fastest-growing ethnic minority group, according to the District’s Office of Latino Affairs.
“Demography is destiny,” said Eugene Garcia, professor at Arizona State University who is familiar with these studies. His comment evokes a quotation from Auguste Comte, a French sociologist. “Anytime a population is growing, we should pay attention.”
Latino children, even those from poor households, tend to enter school with good social skills and an enthusiasm to learn, which a group of recent studies attribute to no-nonsense parenting and strong family bonds. These findings, published in a special section of the journal Developmental Psychology, shed new light on the Latino population living in the United States.
“Academics and liberals assume that low-income Latino parents raise children with problems,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the co-editor of the studies. “But Latino parents socialize their children to be cooperative. In school, they deploy these skills. Latino children in the Washington area display the same robust social skills that we see nationwide as they enter school.”
Latino students offer other advantages to students in the District’s schools.
“Latino students bring a lot of diversity to the table in the educational system,” said Sara Shuman, educational programs manager of the Latino Student Fund in D.C., a community-based center that offers afterschool, ESL classes and summer programs.
“Many Latino students are bilingual, an excellent skill to have both in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and beyond,” Shuman said. “These students also often have an understanding of multiple cultures, making them more prepared to be the global citizens that our world demands.”
Despite these advantages, other challenges, such as the language barrier, may harm Latino student’s ability to perform well in school, Shuman said. Cultural and linguistic differences distinguish Latinos from Caucasians and African Americans. These differences lead people to think that Latinos begin school with more disadvantages than advantages, Fuller said.
“Language is one barrier to Latino students in the District. Latino students come from a background where English is a second language, so most of them don’t speak English at home. This lack of practice makes it challenging for the students to understand the full extent of their curriculum,” said Anthony Chuukwu, founder and executive director of Citiwide Computer Training Center, which uses information technology to decrease the digital divide and improve the educational and socio-economic conditions of D.C.’s low-income residents.
The language barrier is challenging to combat because it begins at home with the family. More than two-thirds of D.C.’s Latinos speak Spanish at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“When parents are unable to communicate in English, this also can limit the amount of interaction that parents can have with schools,” Shuman said. “We know that parent interaction with schools has a positive impact on a child’s education.”
Chuukwu said that this language barrier can be addressed by involving the parents in the education process. “The language challenge can be addressed by assisting low-income families in programs that encourage the use of the English language at home and in school,” he said.
Another common challenge that Latino students face is the economic responsibility that numerous students have to their household.
“Many high school students are also responsible for contributing financially to their families,” Shuman said. “This means that they often work after school or on the weekends, limiting their time to participate in after-school activities or dedicate to homework. Families often depend on the contributions of these students.”
The studies conducted on Latino students’ success in school reveal that Latino’s strong family bonds loosen during adolescence. The reduction in family structure causes enthusiasm for school to fade and performance to wane. “By middle school, many [Latino] kids disengage from school,” Fuller said.
Other hurdles diminish Latino performance further. “Cultural differences make teachers negatively misjudge Latino’s enthusiasm for learning,” Fuller said. “These kids sense this and say, ‘forget it.’”
Latino education levels lag behind the rest of the District’s population. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that one in three Latino adults have less education than a typical 9th grade student.
“Similar to the statistics for Latino students in the United States, Latino prekindergarten through 12th grade students in Washington, D.C. lag behind their peers in standardized test scores and high school graduation rates,” Shuman said.
Garcia said Latino youth need policies designed to overcome the challenges. Fuller places much of the responsibility on schools. He recommends hiring more bilingual teachers and training existing teachers to increase their bicultural skills.
Chuukwu agrees that action is necessary and that a commitment to developing a solution must be accepted by policy makers, teachers, parents and students.
“I don’t think any new research will find a solution to the problems that Latino students face,” he said. “Whatever research that has already been found needs to be implemented and used in addressing this issue so that something can be done.”
Researchers tend to shy away from making claims about specific populations, especially ethnic minorities, because it brews controversy. Some researchers fear that critics will label their findings stereotypes. However, many experts, including Garcia, praise attempts to understand the idiosyncrasies of Latinos. He said it helps to avoid stereotypes.
Garcia hopes the band of researchers who produced the special report will continue to learn about Latino youths. “These studies give us a snapshot of what’s happening in Latino communities at this moment,” he said.
He went on to say that studies that follow individual Latinos over long periods of time would help researchers and concerned citizens identify where to look for the cause of negative trends in the Latino population.
“I think that the more we understand about the problem, the more prepared we will be to help solve the educational gap,” Shuman said. “The Pew Hispanic Center has some great research available. I also think that socio-economic status and race or ethnicity both need to be considered when conducting research.”