Program aims to support Hispanic students

PITTSFORD — Of 68 Latino freshman enrolled at Rochester’s James Monroe High School, 58 of them read below grade level. Four read at grade level and six above.

The numbers shared by Sandra Chevalier-Blackman illustrate the challenge that lies ahead for those involved in the Latino Initiative, which at this time is focused on supporting this group of Monroe Latino students to help them graduate as expected in 2015, she said. Her presentation was one of several about Monroe’s students during the second phase of the Latino Education Summit titled "Action and Excellence" (Acción y Excelencia), which is aimed at improving the academic achievement of the Rochester City School District’s Latino students to ensure more of them graduate. That challenge is exacerbated this year, as the state will require high-school students to pass five Regents exams in order to receive a diploma, said several speakers during the Nov. 30 summit at Nazareth College.

"We need to identify the needs and services in the community to help us increase the number of students reading at grade level," added Chevalier-Blackma, identifying one of the initiative’s primary tasks in order for more Latino students to graduate.

Staff from New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, which the district has contracted with to address the barriers faced by Latino students in Rochester, helped facilitate the initial summit meeting held at Nazareth College last spring. Last month’s summit provided updates on Monroe, which participants chose to target. Subsequently, committees worked to do research on and find solutions for the issues of attendance, health and student placement.

During the Nov. 30 summit, interim Superintendent Bolgen Vargas noted that the Latino student dilemma is not just a local crisis but a national one as well.

And the situation is even more confounding when the research shows that a strong foundation in a child’s primary language helps that child learn a secondary language, he noted. According to an article at, parents should be encouraged to use their native language with their children because it is the language they know best.

"For all students, but particularly for the Hispanic population, what our greatest asset is is language," Vargas added. "That’s a positive but we’re struggling in finding ways to use that advantage."

In addition to boosting family involvement, providing more support from community members in the form of mentors and other volunteers as a form of academic intervention — especially during the summer — will be key, he added.

District and school staff as well as community agencies are currently working on developing a summer program at Monroe for these students, noted Chevalier-Blackman. They also will provide tutoring for students in small group settings and communicate more with parents and students about each child’s academic plans, she said.

While Monroe High School has the highest concentration of Latino students in the Rochester City School District — representing 55 percent of the school’s more than 1,200 students — those numbers are growing in elementary and high schools across the district, explained Brandan Keaveny, director of the district’s office of accountability.

That growth is happening as the district’s student population of 31,000 shows a decline, noted Jeanette Silvers, the district’s chief of accountability. And many of the Latino students, because of the language issue, take longer to graduate, which is not reflected in the 39-percent four-year graduation rate, she added.

"They need more time to meet the requirements of a Regents diploma," she said of students for whom English is a second language.

Many of the community members who attended the summit agreed that Latino students and families need to hear more about their progress at all levels.

"It’s important for students to know they are making progress," said Rick DeJesus, St. John Fisher College’s vice president for student affairs and diversity initiatives. "Achievement will come with progress."

And for bilingual students, finding meaningful assessments of how they are improving in their native languages will be one way to show progress, noted Anaida González-Fortiche, the district’s new director of bilingual education. Adding bilingual programs to high schools and elementary schools throughout the district — another obstacle because of a lack of bilingual certified teachers — also will help these increasing numbers of Latino students, she said.

Her vision for Latino students also includes increasing their numbers enrolling in college, not just graduating high school, said González-Fortiche.

However, one of the primary missions for the district right now is boosting attendance, which could be done by providing incentives, summit participants said, perhaps in cooperation with city recreation centers. Luis Burgos, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said that he supports that idea.

He said that he has already had conversations with school officials about ways to make sure students attend school. Potential prizes could include giving out trophies or providing access to the teen lounges, Burgos added.

"We have the same connections to these children," he said. "We have to find creative ways … and identify resources and incentives."

While school attendance at Monroe is currently is high — ranging from 87 percent to 92 percent last month — those numbers tend to decrease not only as the weather gets colder, but as the holidays get closer, explained Chevalier-Blackman. At that time, cultural factors come into play, as some families take their students out of school for several weeks to celebrate Christmas with families in Puerto Rico, she said.

"That makes a big impact for our students … to take that extended unpaid vacation," added Chevalier-Blackman. "It’s not paid until you graduate. … (The Regents) is a must."

Another must is getting more Latino families educated about the need to participate in their children’s school life and not take the hands-off approach common in Latin American countries, participants agreed.

It’s a message so many parents need to hear, said Gloria Sabastro, president of the bilingual council.

"If parents take note of this … they will have a new vision (for their children)," she added.

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