Multiple support systems help students succeed

ROCHESTER — Support in the community, at home and in school plays a pivotal role in the success of minority city students who graduate and go on to college, according to two research studies discussed during a symposium sponsored by the Rochester City School District.

It was the first time the district organized such a symposium, which was titled "Improving Student Achievement: While Overcoming Adversity," said cochairperson Lorna Washington. She said that the district plans to make it an annual event, with a different topic as the focus each year.

The district receives more than 100 requests for research studies every year, Washington noted, and the symposium idea developed as a way to present the findings from the studies that are conducted. More than 240 people registered for the Nov. 6 event, which was held at the Edison High School campus.

Bolgen Vargas, a school counselor for Greece Arcadia High School and former city school board member, presented his study of the graduates from the Rochester district’s class of 2009. His purpose was to uncover what factors resulted in success for the graduates as opposed to the students who dropped out of school, when both groups possessed similar risk factors — low socioeconomic status, limited English proficiency and family instability.

His research, which included conducting student surveys and personal interviews as well as evaluating written student responses, revealed that the students who "made it" had multiple support systems — at home, in school and in the community. His pool of student responses reflected the demographic makeup of the district, Vargas noted.

"In the past, we used to attribute (student) failure to intelligence," he explained. "Today, we know that .. it’s not intelligence that keeps kids from graduating. The dropouts have as much potential as the graduates."

Such resiliency also was found in the study presented by the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. The research team from Warner was led by Judy Marquez Kiyama and Donna Harris who are both assistant professors of educational leadership.

The professors first unveiled the study last month during Ibero-American Action League’s annual anniversary luncheon. Ibero led "a call to action" two years ago that led to the community-based study of the school experiences of the Latino students and focused on why so many are dropping out, Harris explained. The research team conducted focus groups at multiple city locations and studied district data about students at the middle- and high-school levels.

"The students are really telling us that they want to go to college," Marquez Kiyama explained. "But how do students develop those aspirations and who plays a role in that?"

What the team discovered is that community-based and school-based groups, such as the Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center and the Greater Rochester chapter of the American Red Cross, are playing an important role in Latino students’ success.

This kind of knowledge is vital to college students studying to become teachers as they enter city classrooms, Sharon Christman, a visiting instructor of education at St. John Fisher College, said following Vargas’ presentation.

"We need more of this information in our colleges," she added. "We need to understand our children more and the adversities they face. For our college students, that is very important."

In addition to showing that the students who graduated had more "robust" support from "protective" mothers as well as caring teachers and coaches, Vargas said his study also showed that those who graduated and those who dropped out had "internal assets": a desire to go to college, personal goals, empathy and self-advocacy. The difference, he noted, was that graduates’ multiple support systems led to "gateways" of success; for example, a coach who encouraged a student to join a sports team led to that student receiving a college scholarship.

"Some dropouts possessed the self-awareness that they influenced other friends to stay in school," Vargas remarked. "What I found was that the kid who graduated had more external support … and not just in one place."

As a teacher for 17 years, Leslie Edwards knows well city students’ issues and constraints. Because of that, she tries to serve as a "gateway" for students by focusing on their strengths and caring for them. Some of the teachers at Edison have even come to "adopt" students on an academic basis to offer personal help, she added.

"I don’t teach a statistic or a deficit," Edwards said. "I teach Johnny or Mary … and I see what that child might need. … It’s important to look at the positive."

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