South Junior High Principal Carlos Hernandez is hopeful that the new Common Core standards will raise Latino student achievement.
Latinos scored a hundred points less than their white counterparts on this year's California's Academic Performance Index – and more than 150 points below Asian students — a sign that, despite a decade of effort, educators have failed to close the achievement gap for the state's largest minority group.
As a group, Latinos — who make up 52 percent of California’s public school students — have never met the state's goal of 800 points on the API, according to data provided by the state.
Gov. Jerry Brown's signature this week on AB484 ushered in a new era of testing based on new learning standards called the Common Core and some educators are hoping they will help close the gap.
"If we execute well in K-12, it will ensure that all students who graduate from high school are prepared not only for careers but also for college," said Cal State Fullerton Vice President for Academic Affairs Jose Cruz. "That's an important first step."
Individually, plenty of Latino students are doing well on standardized tests, particularly when they attend high performing schools or districts in affluent neighborhoods.
In Southern California, Latino students at La Cañada, Beverly Hills, Los Alamitos, and Laguna Beach schools scored 50 to 100 points above the state's goal. Latinos make up less than 25 percent of the student population in those school districts.
But for schools in heavily Latino, heavily poor neighborhoods, the numbers are different. API scores hovered in the mid 600s for Latinos attending the Centinela Valley, Antelope Valley, Coachella and Needles school districts.
A few miles north of Angels Stadium at South Junior High, 90 percent of the students are Latino. These Anaheim students missed the state's achievement goal by more than 10 percent this year — about average for Latinos in California, according to figures provided by the California Department of Education.
The school began making the switch to Common Core two years ago, which means students are being taught not just English, math, science and social studies, but are also focusing on "the four Cs": collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking.
In room 223, eighth grade teacher Steve Singley is optimistic about the new learning goals. During a recent lesson on the Byzantine Empire, he had students pair up and read to each other.
"They’ll learn from each other and hold each other accountable," he said. "It’s almost like having multiple me’s throughout the room. I don’t have to stand over them."
Some of the 13-year-olds in his class struggled to read words like siege and Arabs. They were clearly reading below grade level. Singley said making them good "group learners" will help them communicate clearly just as much as teaching them vocabulary will.
Principal Carlos Hernandez said changes to the curriculum are meant to build students skills. At the end of the day, he said, learning facts and figures, historical dates or math formulas isn't as useful in their lives as teaching them that they can rise above their current circumstances.
"Mainly, can we prove to them that they have the skills in them, internally, to be successful."
But it may be two years before the public knows whether Common Core will help Latinos. Lawmakers have made this year’s test a practice test – and they’ll keep the results secret. Next year's results may also be shielded from the public.
Hernandez and other educators who are focused on the issue of teaching Latinos said what happens in the classroom can can only do so much to get the scores up. In high performing districts, kids can rely on their parents to help at home - or to hire tutors.
That's difficult for low-income Latinos, some of whom may have limited English skills.
"My father, his parents came from Mexico in 1929, he told me all the time, they couldn’t help me with my homework," said Reuben Patino, history teacher at South Junior High. "So at least my father and mother could help me more."
After school time
And for many low-income Latino kids, after school time is spent taking care of siblings and steering clear of neighborhood crime. Cal State Fullerton education professor Jose Moreno complains about public agencies helping developers more than schools.
Many Latino and other working class students live in families with low wages, poor health care, and inadequate transportation, he pointed out.
“We keep subsidizing folks to make more money rather than subsidizing working poor people so that they can have more time with their kids,” Moreno said. If we keep that up, he added, "we won’t ever close this gap."
Moreno took part in the “Closing the Latino Achievement Gap” summit at Cal State Fullerton last month. The event brought together administrators, teachers, students, and parents.
In one room, advocates tried to give Spanish speaking parents the skills they need to get involved. Talk to your kids about their homework, said a bilingual learning advocate.
South Junior High's principal said he's working hard to build relationships with his students' parents.
Cribbing off programs that encourage using Spanish as a welcome mat, Hernandez started a “Cafecito con el director” — coffee with the principal — every Friday at 8 a.m. The school marquee now posts messages in both English and Spanish. PTA membership is up at the school, he said.