SOE News

From the dean

Gearing up to help Latino students succeed

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Bill McDiarmid

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For those who have spent any time in North Carolina schools, recent census figures are no surprise. The Latino population is the fastest growing segment in our society, projected to be a quarter of U.S. residents by 2050. In our state during the past decade, the Latino population has grown by a phenomenal 111 percent and now constitutes 8.4 percent of all North Carolinians. More than one out of 10 students in public schools are from Latino families. Latino students accounted for 60 percent of the public school enrollment growth in our state since 2000.

We’re seeing that growth on our campus. At Carolina, the number of Latino undergraduates has increased from only 280 in 2001 to 1,688 this fall.

As demographer James Johnson at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School has pointed out, many Latino students are concentrated in under-resourced schools that have lower percentages of licensed teachers, higher percentages of emergency and provisional licensed and lateral-entry teachers, higher teacher attrition, and less-experienced school leaders. In addition, English is not the home language for most Latino students.

Our schools need help adjusting to the new demographics. While the Latino population has rapidly grown, the majority of beginning teachers report that they feel inadequately prepared to work productively with English language learners and their families. Also, the supply of English-as-a-Second-Language teachers is inadequate to the growing demand.

In short, North Carolina educators and schools need help working successfully with Latino students and their families. We’re doing something about that at the School of Education.

Despite our reduced resources, we have substantially increased our capacity to support educators in working with Latino students and their families by hiring three outstanding scholars who have considerable experience studying and working with Latino students and their families.

Claudia Cervantes-Soon has joined the faculty and significantly enhances our capacity to prepare ESL teachers and conduct research on Latino students. Claudia’s previous research – for her dissertation at the University of Texas-Austin – focused on young Latina women’s identity and agency development in an additive and empowering transnational school setting along the U.S-Mexican border.

Another recent Ph.D. from Austin, Juan Carrillo has joined the Culture, Curriculum, and Change faculty. Through his research, Juan is plotting the educational trajectories of working class, Mexican-origin males, seeking to better understand why some succeed in k-12 schools and higher education.

Marta Civil, who comes to the School as the Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Education, spent 21 years in the mathematics department at the University of Arizona before we managed to recruit her to Carolina. Marta studies both the ways in which Latino parents view the mathematics that their children are learning in school and how Latino students think about foundational mathematical procedures and concepts. Her research helps teachers of Latino students better understand how they reason through mathematical problems and the role that culture plays in learning mathematics.

They join School of Education faculty members and graduate students who were already engaged with Latino educational issues. These include:

Dana Griffin, assistant professor of school counseling, has been doing research and helping parents and schools around issues of building competencies to bridge cultural differences. Her particular interest is the role that school counselors can play in helping build ties across multicultural differences for families, their communities, and schools. She regularly meets with a group of Latina mothers to discuss their children’s school experiences.

Steve Knotek, associate professor of school psychology and early childhood education and coordinator of the School Psychology Program, works with graduate student Marta Sanchez in a program focused on Latina mothers. Their goal is to help mothers of Latino children who are just starting school become more deeply involved with their children’s learning and to become more comfortable interacting with teachers and other school personnel.

A common thread that runs through these research activities and collaborations is the recognition that Latino students, parents, and communities already possess assets that are critical to success. Many Latino families were motivated to move to the U.S. precisely because they wanted better educational opportunity for their children. Also, among families living in poverty, Latino students are more likely than their African-American and white counterparts to live in two-parent households, where the chances are greater of having daily contact with an adult who takes a strong interest in their schooling.

In our country, one that lags well behind others in graduating bilingual or multilingual students, too many people view Spanish-speaking students’ home language as a “problem” to overcome rather than a strength on which to build. A growing body of research suggests that strong bilingual and dual immersion schools help students master both languages more quickly than monolingual settings.

In sum, the School now has a capacity to address Latino educational issues that it has never had before – and may have greater capacity than any other institution in the state. We are cooperating with the Latina/o Studies program in the College of Arts and Sciences to build a speaker series and identify areas in which we collaborate to capitalize on the growing interest in Latino issues campus- and state-wide. Our investment in this area coincides with a growing need for both better understanding of Latino students and their families and for better preparation of educators who can work successfully with them.

Through research and collaboration, we expect to learn more about how we build on the strengths of Latino students, their families and communities to help more of these students succeed.

For more on the research of the faculty mentioned above, please visit our website, soe.unc.edu.

Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.