Corvallis Group Tries to Narrow the Achievement Gap

Dec 22, 2013

The number of Latinos in Oregon schools has reached 22-percent, but an achievement gap between Latinos and whites stubbornly continues. A program in Corvallis may be having some success in improving outcomes for Latino students.

Over tacos, a group of parents and peer facilitators draw up a list of obstacles to going to college.  First is money, then motivation, and then teen pregnancy.  Although they are talking about college, this is a group of parents of elementary school kids being taught the skills they need to be more involved:

"Latinos were Corvallis's best-kept secret. They were here

Credit Corvallis School District

but nobody really knew or paid too much attention. Of course the schools knew they were here."

Erlinda Gonzalez-Berry founded Casa Latinos Unidos, which gives a variety of kinds of support to parents in Corvallis. 14-percent of the students here are Latino. As with almost every other school district in Oregon, there is a  gap between Latinos and whites when you look at  test scores and graduation rates.  One reason is absentee rates are higher among Latinos. Gonzalez-Berry says one reason for that is the kids may be called on by parents during school days to act as interpreters:

"We've had examples where there's a family disturbance, domestic violence or something and they call the police and they call the kids in to translate.  That's just not right. So what I think we're trying to do is help the system understand that they can't use the children as translators or go-betweens."

So Casa Latinos set up a program of volunteer translators. They also do weekly workshops with parents and developed an after-school homework program. It has made parents like Feliciana Torres feel more empowered.  She has a 17-year-old son who was being steered toward a modified diploma. But she and her son didn't like the idea of a lesser document:

"They told us okay, here's the situation.  It's a modified diploma or nothing. They used those words. It's something or nothing.   So I feel so much pressure.  Sometimes the system does not believe that Latinos can do it."

Torres turned to a civil rights group for help and her son is now pursuing a regular diploma. Marcianne Koetje, the principal at Lincoln School, says there has been more parent participation and the school encourages it:

"Whenever we're able to create a place that's safe, that's inviting, that's welcoming,  it's always wonderful for our families, so I believe these workshops are effective."

John Tapogna, with the economics firm EcoNorthwest, studies the achievement gap:

"First and foremost I would say that poverty is the driving factor."

Tapogna says Latino students tend to be poor and poorer students in Oregon are more likely to switch schools, more likely to have inexperienced or brand new teachers. Latino students learn at the same rate as white students but start out about a year behind and often just don't catch up.  Half are in English as a Second Language classes, and Tapogna sayas some are left there too long:

"Schools are given additional resources for every child that is assigned to E-S-L and they lose those resources when the child  graduates from that  status. So there is a fiscal incentive to keep them in that status."

Tapogna says increasingly education achievement is being tied to what happens during the first few years of a child's life and the amount of complexity of their interactions with their parents:

"Kids who are growing up in households that don't have an English speaking parent, and now we've crossed 20-percent in Oregon in terms of kids under the age of five who are  growing up with no English-speaking parent in the household, are going to have a disadvantage in that regard."

Erlinda Gonzalez-Berry talks about the soft racism of lowered expectations:

"People believe that Latino parents are so busy trying to make a living and they work out in the fields and they all have to work really hard to make a go of it here, they don't really care too much whether their students graduate from high school, because what they want is for their kids to be out working and getting a job and helping the family survive.  Whereas parents are saying, my gosh I want my kid to get ahead and I know education is a  way for my kid to get ahead."

After four years of program and consciousness raising, Gonzalez-Berry knows that parent participation has increased.  Meanwhile both test scores and graduation rates have slipped for Latinos and whites statewide in recent years while in Corvallis they have edged up. Casa Latinos could be a reason why.