Saturday, August 05, 2006

Change in education: As Latino students near a majority in public schools, questions arise on how California will address shift


Within three years, California will become the nation's second state, after New Mexico, in which a majority of public school students are Latino, according to state projections.

Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently appointed the president of San Jose's National Hispanic University to the state Board of Education, the shift has been largely ignored in Sacramento. The change, in a state that less than 20 years ago was majority white, raises questions of whether Latino students should be forced to assimilate or schools should adapt to students. Specifically,

How should students with poor English-language skills be taught in a state that has essentially tossed out bilingual education?

Should teacher recruitment emphasize Spanish speakers and Latino teachers?

What subject matter should students be taught and with what books?

How can schools manage cultural differences, such as improving Latino parental involvement in their children's education?

At stake are the state's future economic prosperity and whether Latino students will be an asset or a burden to the state, some educators say. How California deals with the change will be a model -- or a lesson -- for the rest of the country.

"I'm constantly impressed with the little attention we have paid to the massive demographic changes in this state," said Patricia Gandara of Policy Analysis for California Education and a professor of education at UC Davis. The state has been aware of the shift, but "we haven't done anything."

Gandara said that past and present politicians in Sacramento have lacked the political will to address the change. She says the state Board of Education, which adopts textbooks for grades K-8 and establishes curriculum, has failed to acknowledge the shift.

If the state doesn't concentrate more on the coming Latino majority, schools will see higher dropout rates, more gang involvement and more disaffected students who are less motivated to learn, said Jill Kerper Mora, an associate professor of teacher education at San Diego State. The bottom line is schools have to adapt to the biculturalism of students, she said.

"Schools have to change because society is marching forward," said Mora, who sits on the executive board of the California Association for Bilingual Education. "(The demographic shift) has been ignored because a lot of this has been an ethnic conflict -- between mainstream society and the emerging Latino community that has different linguistic and cultural characteristics."

State schools chief Jack O'Connell says that although there is room to improve, the state is on the right path -- sticking to high standards -- in how it teaches its Latino children.

"We're not going to refight old bilingual wars. We need to make sure we have quality programs for all students," O'Connell said, adding that test scores for Latinos have improved. "The structure and mechanism are there for better student preparation."

But Latino student advocates argue that more needs to be done, including adopting textbooks that aren't culturally biased, hiring more Spanish-speaking teachers who reflect the student body and encouraging more Latino students to enroll in rigorous courses.

"Generally speaking, our school systems suffer from institutional racism," said Assemblyman Joe Coto, D-San Jose. "There are many, many cases of schools deciding students of color are 'not college material' and enrolling them in less than the most rigorous courses."

Ana Karen Manzanares Garcia, 18, a 2006 graduate of Deer Valley High School in Antioch, believes her alma mater needs to do a better job of educating Latinos. Although there is a Latino Club at the school, she says Latino culture should be taught more. Few teachers speak Spanish in Antioch, she said, unlike the middle school she attended in San Francisco.

"We're basically like a minority, even though we're not," said Manzanares Garcia, who will attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in the fall. "They're not discriminating (against) us, but they're not noticing us."

But Antioch school board President Bart Sandborn said school districts like his don't look at students differently because of their ethnicity.

"We're here to treat everyone the same, whether the student is African-American or Latino or white," he said.

The big picture

With a little more than 3 million students, Latinos comprise nearly 48 percent of California K-12 public school students, according to the Department of Education. The state Department of Finance projects that in the 2008-09 school year, the state will cross the majority threshold. By 2014-15, 54 percent of the state's students will be Latino, more than double the number of whites.

For years, schools have been majority Latino in much of Southern California and San Jose and predominately Latino in East Bay districts such as West Contra Costa and Pittsburg. In most other Contra Costa schools, white students remain the vast majority. But this year for the first time the Latino population exceeded whites in Antioch schools, according to the Department of Education. Latinos became the biggest group of students in Alameda County schools in 2004-05.

In the past 10 years, Latinos have gone from a quarter of the student body to half at Hillview Junior High in Pittsburg, where Principal Todd Whitmire has three or four staff members out of 80 who speak Spanish, the primary language spoken at home for half of his students. The state has had a long time to get a handle on the shift, he said, but hasn't done so.

"I don't think (the state's approach to the demographic shift is) working at this point," he said. "It's a work in progress."

A 2005 study by the Public Policy Institute of California reports that the state cannot afford to ignore the changing majority. Residents entering the work force in the next 20 years will increasingly be Latino, the study states, which means larger proportions will have to attend college to meet the employment demands.

"To ensure a better future for California, we will need to significantly improve the educational outcomes of the Latino youth who will be the state's workers in the future," the study's editors write.

Texas State Demographer Steve Murdock said the current picture for California and the short-term picture for Texas, where Latinos will be the majority of students after 2015, is the long-term future for the United States.

"The challenge for our states and for all the country is that they (Latinos) have the skills they need to be competitive," he said.

There are signs of success, such as rising test scores, but problems persist. Latinos' graduation rate is 11 points lower than the overall state average, according to one recent study. The latest results from the state high school exit exam show 85 percent of Latino students passed the exam, almost 10 percentage points lower than Asian-Americans and nearly 12 points lower than white students.

"I don't think the state knows a lot about the best way to educate these kids and a lot of data have not been taken advantage of," said Robert Manwaring, director of K-12 education for the state Legislative Analyst's Office.

How we got here

California saw an increase in immigrants from Mexico, including higher levels of illegal immigration starting in the 1970s, State Demographer Mary Heim said. Many illegal immigrants living in the state gained legal status in 1986 when President Reagan signed an immigration reform bill that granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented foreigners nationwide. In turn, that led to chain migration, with naturalized citizens bringing in relatives, Heim said. In California, more than one-third of the population is Latino.

"This is something we have been projecting for a long time," Heim said.

The confluence of several other factors within the past decade has left the state's education system where it is today, according to Patricia de Cos, an analyst with the California Research Bureau, the nonpartisan research arm of the state Legislature and governor's office.

In 1998, voters passed Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative. Around that time, the state Board of Education pushed for reform, adopting new English Language Arts and math standards. In 1999, California enacted school accountability to chart school performance, followed in 2002 by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. These things, coupled with a flagging economy and budget woes, dominated the attention of state legislators and local school districts. As a result, the Latino majority issue was passed over, she said.

Despite efforts in the past decade to inform legislators, including the Senate Education Committee, de Cos and her colleagues haven't held legislators' attention on the issue of demographic change, which she attributed in part to term limits.

"It's sort of like the sleeping giant that is coming into the room that nobody has really acknowledged," she said.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, blames the recalcitrance of the state Board of Education and the demise of bilingual education for the inaction.

"It's one thing to take away a tool in the tool chest," she said. "It's another thing not to replace it with anything except for materials written for native speakers."

It would be impossible for the state to ignore the change, said Roger Magyar, executive director of the state Board of Education. He doesn't expect a radical shift in curriculum -- or the textbooks used -- unless there's a change in state standards.

"We are not interested in creating curriculum that will leave some kids behind," he said. "We know we have to make changes in the school system to help all the kids. It's a difference in opinion if we're going in the right way."

What is being done

While Goldberg stopped short of calling for the return of bilingual education, she, Coto and Latino student advocates want to see the state adopt textbooks suited to meet the change. English and history textbooks and curriculum need to include more Latino and other cultures and be less Eurocentric, some say, and Coto wants textbooks that are less culturally biased. He also believes, as does Goldberg, that lesson plans shouldn't follow a one-size-fits-all approach. Moreover, Latinos are not a monolithic group; they are multigenerational Californios and recent immigrants, both legal and illegal, from across Latin America.

High schools need to raise their standards to meet admission requirements for the University of California and California State University systems so more Latinos will go to college, said Francisco Estrada of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Meanwhile, Jerry Okendo, local chapter president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, says there aren't enough Latino teachers or administrators in the Mt. Diablo school district, for instance.

California Teacher Association President Barbara Kerr said, however, that the state doesn't need a plan to address a Latino majority. Instead, California should find more money to spend on teachers, materials and smaller class sizes, among other things.

The state's 2006-07 budget allocates $315 million to focus on English learners and disadvantaged students and $25 million for additional teacher training. State legislators have introduced bills in both houses that address the 25 percent of students who are English learners, 85 percent of whom speak Spanish. The governor's secretary of education, Alan Bersin, declined to comment for this story.

More schools should also reach out to immigrant parents to help them learn the U.S. school system, Kerr and other educators say. Last spring, for example, schools in Antioch, Oakland and Richmond offered a nine-week course through the Parent Institute for Quality Education. CSU campuses reserve space for the children of parents who complete the course if they meet admission requirements. A growing number of schools, such as Meadow Homes Elementary in Concord and Foothill Elementary in Pittsburg, have turned to dual immersion programs in which English speakers and learners are taught in two languages.

While teacher preparation and data collection have improved, ignoring biculturalism will mean missed benefits of arts, music, dance and other creative outlets, Mora, the San Diego State professor, said.

"The crux of the matter is the reality of demographic change," she said. "Unless we see the potential the Latino community represents for the state of California -- instead of a problem or a challenge -- we're not going to make much headway."

Andrew Becker covers East Contra Costa education. Reach him at 925-779-7116 or

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