Hispanic students in a bilingual classroom at Monroe High School. Hispanic students in a bilingual classroom at Monroe High School.

Ibero, UR work to avert educational crisis

Ibero-American Action League and the University of Rochester have joined forces to determine what is causing so many Hispanic students to drop out of high school and offer a solution to the community crisis.

"We have to find out the why (students are dropping out of school)," said Hilda Rosario-Escher, Ibero’s president and chief executive officer. "We have to do something. We need our community to move forward. And I always say education is the key."

Ibero’s strategic plan identified education as one of three key areas for the agency to focus on, with the others being health and financial well-being, Rosario-Escher added. In conversations with Rochester City School Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, she received the suggestion to bring in the University of Rochester to study Rochester’s Latino student population.

Rosario-Escher said that she then approached Nancy Ares, an associate professor of teaching and learning at the university’s Warner School of Education, about the possibility of conducting a research project. The two women had worked together in developing The Children’s Zone — later named Rochester Children’s Surround Care Corp. — which was designed to improve living conditions in the city’s northeast neighborhoods.

From there, two assistant professors of education — Donna Harris and Judy Marquez Kiyama — were brought on board to conduct the research. Funding for setting up focus groups of students and parents was secured through a $14,000 grant from The Rochester Area Community Foundation, Rosario-Escher said.

The focus groups, which will meet until February, will discuss two main questions that Warner School staff and members of a newly created Ibero task force agreed would elicit the kind of information needed to make recommendations to solve the dropout problem:

  • What are the critical transition points for Latino students in the city school district?

  • What contributes to the development of educational aspirations for Latino students?

"We want to be able to isolate where students are getting stuck and also isolate where students are being successful," Harris said.

According to nystart.gov, Hispanic students comprise 21 percent of the city school district’s 32,147 students. Forty percent of Latino students graduated in 2007. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 21 percent of Hispanics nationwide drop out of high school, four times the rate of non-Hispanic Caucasian students and nearly three times that of African-American students.

"Rochester is not unique. You see the same thing across the nation, from school district to school district, Hispanics have the highest dropout rate," said Rose Mary Villarrubia-Izzo, a homeschool specialist with the district’s department of English-language learners, bilingual and Hispanic services. "Everyone is trying to do the same thing: Find out (why.) Anyone who can assist and make a difference with our students, we support."

The task force Ibero created to address the dropout rate includes district and university staff as well as community members, such as Father Laurence Tracy, and neighborhood advocates, she added. The task force will make recommendations to the school district and agencies that work with Hispanic youths when the Ibero-Warner School research project is complete. Ibero hopes to hold a town meeting and present a report to the community by next summer, Rosario-Escher explained.

To complete that report, the Warner School team — which includes graduate students — will gather the information provided by parent and student focus groups as well as data provided from the district, Harris said. The focus groups began meeting last month at a variety of locations that are easily accessible to city families, such as St. Michael Church, the Puerto Rican Youth Development & Resource Center, East and Monroe high schools, and UR, she added.

"The different venues suggest we will get variation in student and parent experience," Harris said. "It’s not a perfect science … but we want data that will be robust enough to help us understand what’s happening on the ground level with Latino students, parents and guardians, and their families."

Having the anecdotal evidence in addition to the school district data will provide a more complete picture of the city Latino student, Marquez Kiyama said.

"The nice thing about doing both (focus groups and data collection) is that the focus group can ask students and their parents really about what’s going on," she said. "The information from the school district tells us the how and the why, issues explored and how they define successful progress and successful transition."

After gathering information from the focus groups and the school district, the research project’s second phase will include discussions with teachers, counselors and school administrators.

Having a variety of voices will be key to getting an accurate picture of these Hispanic families, Villarrubia-Izzo said. That is one reason she said that she attended a Nov. 12 urban-education forum at the Warner School, where the research project was discussed. She said that she wanted to ensure that the audience and the people presenting information on the research project know her department has been helping Hispanic families for many years. Villarrubia-Izzo has been with the school district for 26 years.

Frances Rodríguez can attest to the school district’s commitment to serving Hispanic families.

When Rodríguez’s oldest daughter, Mariangelis González, was struggling in a science class during her sophomore year at Jefferson High School, the 17-year-old wanted to drop out, explained the mother of four students enrolled in city schools. Mariangelis had lived in both Rochester and Puerto Rico during her young life and was struggling with English in that class, Rodríguez added.

Rodríguez turned to Villarrubia-Izzo, and they were able to transfer Mariangelis to Edison Tech High School where she has flourished, her mother remarked. Teachers there take the time with Mariangelis in the classroom and after school to help her with any concepts she is having difficulties with, Rodríguez added.

"She is doing better," she said. "she wants to graduate here."

Rodríguez said that she supports the Ibero-Warner School research project because her family’s situation illustrates a common dilemma for many Hispanic students that can be turned around with proper support and education for parents on what they can do.

"They are frustrated because they don’t understand things in school," she said of students like her daugher. "The prefer to cut classes. … There they begin to leave schools."

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