December 7, 2001

Commentary

The Latino Academic Achievement Gap

By Ricardo Cooke

By the year 2040, Latinos will be the majority of the California population, and 15 percent of the United States. Already, the Latino press is among the strongest in independent news. In San Diego, where I live and teach, we have approximately a dozen Latino newspapers and several television and radio stations. Nearly half of the small businesses in the Sweetwater Union High School district are owned by Latinos. Latino students attending my local high school already rank a majority at 60 percent. Without question, this generation of Latino students will have a greater impact on their world than their parents did. The next will have even more.

Each year, the prosperity level among U.S. Latinos climbs. High school and college graduation rates increase. The voting bloc becomes more powerful. Still, there are obstacles that the Latino community must overcome in order to reach the full social and economic empowerment and equality it so richly deserves. That is eliminating the academic achievement gap. That's not to say that the Latino community must do this alone. It absolutely must be supported by the community at-large — the education community in particular.

Looking at the California standardized test scores, it is clear that there is educational inequity, reflected by an achievement gap among Latino students. But there's more to intelligence than test scores. Like many schools across the United States, Sweetwater Union High School offers diversity classes and clubs to help students appreciate the cultural richness around us. It is also exploring different ways students learn and developing strategies that reach different types of learners.

Closing the achievement gap is a three-way effort. Students, parents and teachers must all be committed to this goal. Following are some ways I have found to be extremely effective in engaging my Latino students, and helping them fulfill their academic potential.

Tips for teachers who want to close the achievement gap

Teach to multiple learning channels - I am involved with Learning Forum, a San Diego-based education group which runs the SuperCamp program, aimed at maximizing students' performance. Learning Forum believes that there are many types of learners, including visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Visual learners like to see the lesson written on the blackboard or in a book that includes pictures and diagrams. Auditory students respond well to lectures. Kinesthetic learners need interaction, creativity and demonstration. Devise your lesson plan to incorporate all three. Typically, most students respond well to a more engaging, demonstrative approach. Be sure to teach to multiple learning channels so Latino students get the same educational opportunities their peers enjoy.

Create a learning environment that is inclusive - Look at the environment in which you teach. Are students included in the design and curriculum around you? Do the posters reflect the diversity of your students? What about the books you read? Do the authors represent the culture in which you live? How are the desks situated in the room? Is student success celebrated? Do you hang high scoring tests around the room? Artwork? An excellent essay?

Adopt a success model for your students - This simply means that educators should learn to set their students up for success. For instance, we know that the higher a student's perception of the difficulty of a lesson, the less likely s/he is to take a risk. Therefore, we need to convince students that they are well-prepared to succeed at the next level. An approach that the Learning Forum has taught me is called "chunking." Breaking information down into smaller bites makes the lesson easier to absorb. This must be followed by lots of review.

Learn their language - To reach students, we need to understand their world. And if we can't understand it, at least we should know a few catch phrases. I am always sure to know a little insider lingo so they know I care enough to learn about their world. We can't wait for students to come to us. Teachers can educate more effectively if we get into their students' world, rather than waiting for them to come to ours.

Encourage parents to become more involved - As educators, we all know that the best students typically have the most involved parents. Let's remind parents of this. We can't assume that all parents know their rights and responsibilities in the educational success of their children. To keep parents apprised of what's going on in the classroom, I distribute a monthly newsletter, and call parents when a student is falling behind (as well as succeeding).

Get the community involved _ Look at mentoring programs which link successful upperclassmen with freshmen. In addition, there are numerous college programs which mentor young aspiring students. Invite Latino business people, artists or elected officials to address your students. Also, invite speakers who the students can relate to _ someone who started off where they are. Take the class on a field trip to see a play written by a Latino, or an exhibit of a Hispanic painter. Like all people, when Latinos see others like themselves achieving greatness, they are inspired to do so themselves.

More than ever before in our nation's history, Latinos are assuming leadership positions in business, public service and education. As teachers, we must ensure that we are doing everything possible to close the Latino achievement gap and give tomorrow's leaders their best chance for success.

Ricardo Cooke teaches English and Cultural Diversity at Bonita Vista High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District. He was recently recognized as teacher of the year in his district and Top 10 in San Diego County. Cooke can be reached at info@learningforum.com.

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