LEAs supporting Latino student achievement
Hispanic Heritage Month provides an additional opportunity to focus on this student population
Young Latino students in front yard

California is home to the largest Latino population in the United States, with 55 percent of the student population identifying as Latino/Hispanic. (The terms are often used interchangeably in education, as Hispanic is the official state and federal category for this population.) The federal government has designated Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month — a time to appreciate the community’s history, heritage and contributions of the ancestors of American citizens who came from Mexico, Spain, the Caribbean, and South and Central America. In this article, CSBA is highlighting a handful of programs that focus on the achievement and support of this student group.

Oakland USD focuses on Latino student achievement
The Oakland Unified School District created its Latino Student Achievement initiative in 2017 with guidance from the area’s diverse Latino youth-serving agencies, community leaders, students and advocates participating in the Latino Student Achievement Community Task Force. The initiative aims to create the educational conditions, culture and competencies necessary to advance Latino student achievement within a full-service community school district.

The initiative focuses on five key areas to advance Latino student achievement: Recruiting and retaining Latino educators; affirming Latino identity, history and culture through student leadership and classroom engagement; strengthening Latino family engagement linked to student learning; preschool enrollment; and family engagement.

The district also highlights Latino students who are thriving academically by holding an Annual Latino Student Honor Roll ceremony. Marisa Villegas, a targeted student intervention specialist for the Latino student initiative, welcomed students to the 2022 ceremony by applauding their achievements. The ceremony is designed to honor students’ hard work, the support of their families and the “beautiful cultures” that comprise Oakland, Villegas said.

The Puente Project increases college-going rates
Since its inception at Chabot Community College in Hayward in 1981, the Puente Project has become a nationally recognized program that has improved the college-going rate of tens of thousands of educationally underrepresented students throughout the state. Launched as a grassroots initiative to address the low rate of academic achievement among Mexican American and Latino students, founders Felix Galaviz and Patricia McGrath found a common pattern across 2,000 student transcripts: students were avoiding academic counseling, students were not enrolling in college-level writing courses, and students were the first in their families to attend college.

The Puente Project — which has since expanded to seven middle schools, 36 high schools and 65 community colleges in California — comprises three parts to address these specific challenges: rigorous language arts instruction, sustained academic counseling, and community leadership development and mentoring. Community college instructors, middle and high school teachers and counselors receive training from Puente staff to implement a program of rigorous instruction, focused academic counseling and mentoring by members of the community.

These training programs, co-sponsored by the University of California and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, have benefited approximately 300,000 students across the state. And they are paying off. UC’s
2020 fall admission class had the highest percentage ever of Latino students, at 36 percent. The university system also increased the number of first-generation, low-income and community college transfer students admitted.

Sobrato Early Academic Language programs gives early learners a boost
Focused on improving outcomes among Silicon Valley’s English learner students, a pilot program by the Sobrato Family Foundation, designed by Laurie Olsen, launched in three elementary schools and feeder preschools in 2008 aimed to offer a comprehensive approach to early learning. The pilot program’s positive and promising impacts resulted in the creation of the Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) model, which was expanded and replicated in the Bay Area and then throughout California. SEAL became an independent organization in 2019 with a goal of further scaling its impact and partnering with stakeholders to promote and support multilingualism for students. Elementary and preschool partners now include dozens of local educational agencies spanning the state.

SEAL is grounded in addressing English learners’ needs at all levels, including practice, research and policy, and advocacy to create systemic change. The program is also committed to developing the intellectual and linguistic skills of young children while placing value on families’ culture and language and ensuring teachers have the skills necessary to be effective educators. It is a comprehensive, whole-school strategy, according to the organization.

The program strikes a chord with both current and former English learners. “I was an English learner. In my culture, there is a separation of family and school. I wish we had SEAL when I was a student — it validates students’ upbringing, culture and background, and prioritizes family engagement in how teachers deliver instruction,” said Vern Caruz, principal of Stipe Elementary in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District, in a quote featured on SEAL’s website.

Grupo Folklórico San Ysidro dancing Baile Folklórico
Grupo Folklórico San Ysidro instills pride and contributes to academic success
Based at San Ysidro High School in San Diego County, Grupo Folklórico San Ysidro was founded in July 2002 by the program’s director Lalo M. Hirsch. It launched at the same time the campus was opening its doors in the city of Chula Vista. From one class of 25 students, Hirsch has dedicated the past two decades to the program and grown it to six classes serving approximately 200 students per year, making it one of the largest programs of its kind in California.

“Baile Folklórico is the traditional folk dance from the Republic of México. Each state and region have their own culture and traditions that are expressed through the art of dance. My students study and learn a well-rounded curriculum, consisting of dance routines from the north, central and southern regions of México,” Hirsch said.

Dancers receive visual and performing arts credits and college elective credits for participating. Through Mexican folk dance, the mission of the group is to allow students to learn personal responsibility, group dynamics and leadership skills; grow and develop critical-thinking abilities and creative expression as well as physical and mental stamina; and share in cultural understanding and appreciation for the richness of the art form.