School district works to ensure Latinos graduate

ROCHESTER — Ensuring the high-school graduations of more Latino city students is not just a job for the school district but also for the entire community, school officials contend.

"The district plays a major role (in ensuring graduations); however, we all play a role," said Gladys Pedraza-Burgos, head of the Rochester City School District’s family and children’s division. "It really takes a city for us to be able to really increase the graduation rates."

Meeting the unique needs of Hispanic students was the focus of an urban-education forum held Nov. 12 at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. During the forum, Pedraza-Burgos talked about the city school district’s "Latino deep dive" initiative to produce more Hispanic graduates. The event also included the presentation of statistics showing that the 2007-08 graduation rate for Latinos was 40 percent.

Sandra Quiñones, a Warner School graduate student who helped coordinate the forum, said that progress has been made since the 1986 AHORA community report that assessed the community’s education, health and economic well-being showed that the Latino student dropout rate was 70 percent.

Even so, the 2007-08 graduation rate shows that progress is still coming at too slow a pace, said Quiñones, who also serves on an Ibero-American Action League education task force.

She noted that the 1986 report and a follow-up report a decade ago showed that Latino students still face the same situations that can pose challenges to their graduations, such as fractured families and inequities in resources such as opportunities to maintain competency in other subjects while learning English.

"Let’s do something," Quiñones said. "These inequities … and challenges need to be addressed."

The "Latino deep dive" initiative is attempting to do just that, Pedraza-Burgos explained during a Nov. 13 telephone interview. She said that the initiative is a way of building relationships among district officials, community groups, college representatives and parents to work on a solution that will produce more Hispanic graduates who then go on to higher education.

"The purpose (of the initiative) is to provide a forum of community stakeholders to share information, strategies and resources to improve the academic performance of Latino students in Rochester city schools," she said. "Obviously, they (students) are not doing as well as they could."

Melisza Campos, a city school district board member, helped develop the initiative earlier this year.

"If we are going to have major gains (in graduation rates), we have to have an impact on Latino students," Campos noted. "We are in the beginning stages of the group, and I believe more will come of it."

Pedraza-Burgos said that during initial meetings about the initiative, members of the various groups involved have shared information about programs they have created, such as offering improved placement information and boosting parent engagement. Neighborhood groups have talked about such housing efforts as offering home-repair grants, creating neighborhood-watch groups and providing information on public safety and lead hazards.

Father Laurence Tracy, one of the community members who put together the 1986 AHORA report, said that the dropout and graduate rates are a problem that has lingered for too long and must be tackled.

"What are the system blocks and factors that keep systemic educational reform from happening for our Latino students?" Father Tracy, a longtime Hispanic community advocate, asked rhetorically during the Nov. 12 urban-education forum.

Barb Benedict spoke of the frustration she has experienced as the tutor of a Hispanic boy who was labeled as being in need of special-education services. She said that he is interested in science but is frustrated because he lacks the English-language skills to understand common words in English vocabulary.

"He needs to be stimulated in different ways," she said.

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