As Student Numbers Grow, So Do Demands

Education: Schools struggle to help burgeoning Latino population master basic skills and aim for college.

Unless schools target Latino students aggressively, stop justifying their failures and help them to succeed, Ventura County educators fear that a growing number of these students could be in danger of falling behind their peers or dropping out of school.

Already, the challenges are daunting. Educators are scrambling to find ways to motivate Latino students in the face of low test scores, high dropout rates, and language and socioeconomic barriers that have historically plagued many of them.

They must also find ways to boost academic performance and raise expectations for a student population that is too often ill-prepared for college. In the 1996-97 school year, for example, only 20% of Latino high school graduates in Ventura County met the UC or Cal State entrance requirements, compared with 44% of white students.

Educators must do all this at a time when Latino enrollment has skyrocketed 44% this decade alone–part of a population surge expected to continue over the next 40 years as Latinos become the largest ethnic group in Ventura County. And at a time when conventional approaches, such as bilingual education, have come under fire from critics for failing to produce convincing results on standardized tests.

“The population is multiplying and we’re not preparing these kids or giving them the appropriate skills they need,” said Ventura school board trustee Cliff Rodrigues, director of bilingual education for the county schools system. “We’re going to have to take a different approach or we’re going to get more and more kids out on the streets or in Juvenile Hall.”

At the same time, some Ventura County educators and community leaders argue that schools have long had lower expectations for Latino students, and have rationalized poor performance based on limited English skills, poverty or their parents’ lack of education.

Now they are raising the bar and implementing a host of programs aimed at boosting achievement and preparing Latino students for college.

“Schools need to expect Latino students to perform, and they will,” said Gil Cuevas, who runs a local group that encourages young Latinos to be community leaders. “They are very bright kids. It’s just a matter of providing them with opportunities and opening their minds to new ideas.”

Latino students are flourishing in schools throughout Ventura County. They are student body presidents and campus club leaders. They are members of academic decathlon and mock trial teams. They are excelling in Advanced Placement and honors classes and winning competitive scholarships. And they are graduating at the top of their classes.

But high-achieving Latino students are often lost in the tide of dismal statistics or are overshadowed by teens who join gangs and commit crimes. And they don’t get the attention they deserve.

Working to Succeed

Claudia Felix, 18, is one Latina who deserves praise.

In June, she graduated as Fillmore High School valedictorian, with a 4.21 grade point average. She is now attending UC Santa Barbara, where she plans to major in sociology and pursue a career as a high school counselor.

In her senior year at Fillmore, Felix ran cross country, played varsity soccer, took four AP classes and was a member of the honor society. She also worked as a volunteer translator for the local Legal Aid office.

Felix said she was frustrated by peers who didn’t try in school. Latino students need to take advantage of the opportunities available to them–and not resort to drugs or gangs, she said.

Though both of her parents only finished the third grade, they always encouraged her to succeed.

“They modeled for me hard work and determination, and I followed their model,” she said.

Felix, whose long brown hair falls across her broad shoulders, is the youngest of nine children, and the third to go to college.

“I think as long as you try, you can do anything you want,” she said. “It’s difficult, but you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.”

Felix, however, is in the minority. Many Latino students aren’t succeeding. Especially challenged are the children of uneducated and poor Mexican and Central American immigrants, who are forced to find their way in an educational system struggling to meet their needs. These are the children who are flooding Ventura County schools.

Educators are now gearing up to find classroom space for this Latino student population that is already bursting at the seams at schools across the county.

Latinos made up 41.6% of the student population in Ventura County in the 1998-99 school year, and most attend schools in Oxnard, Santa Paula and Fillmore. In the Santa Paula Elementary district, Latino students made up 73% of the student population in 1990 and 83.4% in 1998. And in Fillmore Unified, Latino student enrollment jumped from 71.5% in 1990 to 77.9% in 1998.

A Growing Presence

But there is also a growing Latino student population in Camarillo, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and other areas. In Simi Valley Unified, 17.8% of students were Latino in 1998, up from 12.4% in 1990. And in Conejo Valley Unified, the Latino student population grew from 9.5% in 1990 to 15.1% in 1998.

Although there are no official estimates of future enrollment, Latinos could make up nearly 60% of the student population in 2020 if numbers continue to rise at the same rate they have in the past five years.

Increasing Latino enrollment has prompted some concern that white students may leave public schools to attend private campuses.

But County Supt. of Schools Chuck Weis said Latinos have always had a strong presence in the region’s schools, and he doesn’t believe white families will transfer their children.

“I don’t see the white flight in Ventura County like there has been in the San Fernando Valley,” he said. “It seems to me that the Latino culture is part of the roots of Ventura County.”

But in Moorpark last year, parents did challenge the ethnic makeup of that district’s elementary schools. Almost half of the students at Peach Hill Elementary School were Latino in 1998, compared with one-fourth to one-third at other Moorpark elementary schools. Peach Hill parents argued that English-speaking students weren’t getting the attention they needed.

Last February, the school board voted to change boundaries to ensure that Latinos were evenly integrated throughout Moorpark schools.

Finding places to put new Latino elementary students is one of the greatest hurdles facing school districts, especially those on the Oxnard Plain, where the Latino student population has increased nearly 40% this decade.

The Oxnard district, which already relies on year-round schedules to save space, could be forced to end class-size reductions or to hold morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate the expected population swell, officials said.

Barrier of Language

Educators throughout the county will also have to figure out ways to make Latino students feel connected to school and to learning.

Many Latino students are struggling to learn basic skills and to keep up with their peers. Often, that low achievement comes down to language. One-fifth of the county’s students are considered limited-English proficient.

On last year’s Stanford 9 test, designed to measure basic skills, students who spoke limited English performed far worse than their English-speaking peers.

For example, 53% of the county’s English-speaking fourth-graders scored at or above the national average in reading, compared with 11% of students who spoke limited English. And 57% of the English-speaking ninth-graders scored at or above the national average in math, compared with 21% of ninth-graders who spoke limited English.

The districts with the heaviest concentrations of poor students who speak limited English–including Fillmore Unified, Oxnard Elementary and Rio Elementary–scored the lowest in the county.

Educators point out, however, that the test is administered in English and that it should be given in Spanish so that it can more accurately reflect student progress.

Others argue that since the passage of Proposition 227 in June 1998, schools should follow the will of the voters and teach and test strictly in English, particularly since bilingual education has done so little, in the eyes of the critics, to advance learning.

However they are assessed, many Latino students in Ventura County are not keeping pace with their peers.

Reaching Out to Students

Dropout rates have consistently been high among Latino students in Ventura County and throughout the state. In the 1997-98 school year, almost twice as many Latino students dropped out of county schools as white students–59.4% Latino compared with 31.9% white.

Latino students also crowd the county’s continuation high schools, designed for students who don’t succeed in a traditional school setting or are unable to complete their required credits within four years.

About 65% of the students at the alternative Moorpark Community School last year were Latino, compared with 26% at Moorpark High School.

Moorpark Community School Principal Gabino Aguirre said most of his Latino students are recent immigrants who started school late and never caught up with their peers. He said that is when students are most in danger of dropping out and emphasized that teachers need to reach out to students and encourage them to stay in school.

That is what two Ventura County programs aim to do.

Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, combines study skills, tutoring and mentoring to help middle and high school students raise their grades, get into college and be successful once they are there. Though the program does not exclude any race or ethnicity, the majority of participants are Latino. And all of them have parents who didn’t attend college. In Ventura County, there are AVID programs in the Moorpark, El Rio, Santa Paula, Ventura, Oxnard, Fillmore and Hueneme districts.

The other program, Future Leaders of America, pairs high-performing students with recent immigrants–mostly Latino–to improve the newcomers’ communication and English-language skills, self-esteem and grades. The Oxnard-based organization has served high school students from Fillmore, Ventura, Oxnard, Moorpark and Simi Valley.

“For many years, we were losing many of these kids,” said Gil Cuevas, founding president of Future Leaders of America. “They werereally confused and there wasn’t any guidance. So we are working very hard to keep them on track.”

Recent outreach efforts have paid off.

Latino enrollment at the county’s community colleges has increased steadily during the past four years, going from 48% to 52% at Oxnard College, 27% to 29% at Ventura College and from 12% to 13% at Moorpark College.

With the creation of a new Cal State campus in the county, more Latinos will likely go on to a four-year college, Cal State Channel Islands President Handel Evans said. The new university is already targeting Latino high school students through two outreach programs.

Last fall, the university launched a readiness program at Santa Paula High School to prepare students for college. Officials plan to expand the program, which offers students tutoring in math and English.

And during the summer, about 100 students from Santa Paula, Simi Valley, Fillmore and Ventura high schools took diagnostic tests in math and English, and participated in a one-week institute at the developing campus. The program was designed to reduce the number of freshmen arriving at Cal State campuses ill-prepared for college-level courses.

“Many youngsters in Ventura County schools are first-generation Americans and don’t have the tradition of higher education in their families,” Evans said. “So you have to inculcate from an early time that going to a university is possible.”

Ventura County schools have also made an effort to hire more Latino teachers to increase diversity and to provide students with Latino role models.

In the 1997-98 school year, 11.7% of Ventura County’s teachers were Latino, up from 8.4% in 1992-93.

Teachers don’t have to be Latino to be successful with Spanish-speaking students, educators say. But it’s a bonus to have teachers who can communicate with students and parents in their native tongue.

“Unless a teacher makes a real connection with a kid, learning isn’t going to happen,” trustee Rodrigues said. “The majority of our teachers are from white, Anglo backgrounds. They go in with all good intentions, but they’re not connecting.”

Educators also stress the importance of reaching out to Latino parents, many of whom aren’t well-educated and don’t know how important it is to make school a priority in their children’s lives. In collaboration with local schools, the Thousand Oaks sheriff’s station offers a 10-week class to show parents how to steer their children away from drugs and gangs and toward school.

“There is a gap between our cultures,” said Elizabeth Dee, a counselor at Thousand Oaks High School. “We really need to open the doors to Latino parents and we really need the parents to buy in and realize that their kids can make it.”

Teachers and administrators also need to expect more from Latino students. Often, educators think that because many Latino students are poor or their parents lack education that they can’t do well in school. But if students are expected to perform well–they will.

And they may even return to their community and help other students.

“The kids that were in our schools are now taking leadership roles . . . and joining the ranks as teachers,” said Jennifer Robles, bilingual program specialist for Ventura Unified School District. “They’ve had the bilingual experience, they’ve had the immigrant experience, and they know firsthand what it takes for kids to be successful.”

Albert and Brasilia Perez are two local teachers who, by example, are showing their Latino students that anything is possible.

At Sheridan Way School in Ventura, kindergartners clamored for Albert Perez’s attention. One wanted to show him a picture. Another pleaded to go to the bathroom. A third wanted him to read her a story.

Meanwhile, his wife and co-teacher Brasilia helped a few students prepare for a class celebration.

Both teachers grew up in low-income, Spanish-speaking homes in Ventura and attended local schools. They both decided early on that they wanted to teach bilingually in their hometown so they could influence children in situations that were similar to their own.

Now, after graduating from UCSB, both are back in Ventura teaching bilingual kindergarten–at the same school Albert Perez attended as a child.

Often, children who are excited about learning in elementary school get lost once they hit junior high or high school, Albert Perez said. And that is when they look outside of school–to gangs and drugs–for support.

So Perez does whatever he can to encourage them early on, and then tries to be an influence as they grow older. Sometimes, he said, one or two even say they want to become teachers.

“I treat these kids like they were my own,” he said. “I let them know that if they stick to it, they can do it. We have to get them thinking about the future and about going to college.”

Tuesday: Latinos gear up to meet the demands of an economy no longer centered on agriculture.

About This Series

This is the second of a four-part series examining the impact of the coming Latino majority on Ventura County and its institutions.

TODAY: Guaranteeing Latino success depends in large measure on guaranteeing them access to a good education and ending feel-good policies that justify failure.

TUESDAY: The growing Latino population will require massive job creation. But will the jobs be there?

WEDNESDAY: There are problems, but also encouraging signs. The Latino middle class has doubled in three decades.

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