Latino students provide insight on achievement gap and life

Barry Albertson is a member of the Tigard-Tualatin School Board. He wrote this piece with the aid of Latino and Latina students he met with at Tigard and Tualatin high schools.
School districts across the country, including ours, have been trying to understand and then address what educators call the racial achievement gap — the often stark differences in academic achievement, measured by state testing scores between Caucasian students and students of color, including African American, Asian, Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern students and our Hispanic population.

While focusing on all these groups, we tend to hone in on our fastest growing population — our Latino/a students — and why, as a group, they seem to lag behind many other ethnic groups when it comes to high school academic testing and achievement. We do talk about it a lot and try different approaches — sometimes helping, sometimes not.

Obviously, everyone wants every student to do well, stay in school, graduate and be successful . Over the years, I’ve heard countless opinions and points of view regarding this issue, from nearly everyone — everyone, that is, except these students themselves.

This past winter and spring, I spent some time, both at Tigard and Tualatin high schools, talking to our Latino/a students, getting their unvarnished version of the achievement gap to allow them to tell me about themselves, in and out of school, their aspirations and their goals.

I found out these kids are enormously bright, engaging, witty and certainly not shy. More importantly, they were open, honest and blunt. What follows are their words and perspectives:

• High School Life — Most loved being in school and with their friends, and found it pretty easy to make friends across race boundaries. But it was really hard to balance everything from classes and school activities to getting up early to be ready for their first 7:50 a.m. class. Many said there were too many high school cliques, and there was just too much homework and way too much drama. Several said the costs of being a student are too high for them to be involved in the things they’d like. They agreed there were way too few teachers, who had way too little time to get to know them. Class sizes were way too big, and they seemed to have less fun classes available in their schedules.

Some said it was hard to get to know school administrators, that the best relationships they had were with their teachers and counselors and with some of the school’s classified staff. Their counselors were overworked, with way too many kids to watch out for and not enough time for both counselors and teachers to check-up on them.

They felt they were stereotyped, even when they were taking advanced classes, and they often face both stereotypical and racists comments. There was also a lot of self-segregation at school. Many revealed they are often seen as unequal academically, or in sports — it was hard to get chosen in groups in their classes. It also seemed white and Asian kids have more expectations placed on their shoulders, and that Latino/a students should have those expectations placed on them, too. Many felt they were more than able to be in advanced classes, but their teachers didn’t agree. They all said they wanted to be treated equally.

• The Racial Achievement Gap — Many had never heard of the term. Others who had said certain students are lazy and just don’t care about learning. They said our schools need better student mentoring programs and that many of their friends are smart, but sometimes act dumb. They said Latino kids under-estimate themselves and believe no matter what they do or try, that it doesn’t matter. Several acknowledged that all kids have opportunities, but many just haven’t cared enough to take advantage of them, then these students develop a bad attitude about school and stop trying. Others believed many aspects of the current educational environment contributes to their educational success and because of this fact, none of the effort to close the achievement gap really matters.

• Family and Home — The universal response from these students was that their parents want them all to have a good education, go to college and have wonderful, happy lives. Their moms and dads had very high expectations and aspirations for them — they wanted them to have better lives than they do. For all of them, family is very important.

• Perceptions — These Latino/a students think people do not see them for what they are: smart. They want everyone to see them as a person, as someone who is responsible and wants to succeed. They said people should not be defined by their race or skin color.

• Personal Goals and Ambitions — All these students have high aspirations for themselves. They want college degrees and careers in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, marine biology, law, business, teaching, careers in the performing arts and music, culinary arts, law enforcement, military, interior design, engineering and photography.

• Their Pride — All these kids expressed great pride in their families, culture, heritage and in their community. They want the chance to be considered "Americans" — just like everyone — but still retain their culture and be able to identify with the countries of origin of their families.

For a lot of youngsters today, getting people to know them can be an enormous hurdle. So here’s the big news flash, we all have tons in common with these kids. But, they and their families are dealing with lots of issues that I didn’t have to face. Speaking for myself, during the last five months of the school year, I had the pleasure of getting to know about 60 pretty diverse kids. One Latina student at Tigard High summed it all up quite eloquently when she told me, “All we want, all anyone wants, is access and an opportunity.”

Access and opportunities are pretty easy commodities for schools, school boards and society to dish out. Then, after that, maybe if we just spend a few minutes each day getting to know these kids and their families, our schools would truly flourish, these scholastic markers called racial achievement gaps would disappear, and we’d all be much better off.

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