Where’s the Hope for Hispanic Students?

Already lagging behind by the time they start kindergarten, many Latino children across America go on to face a downward educational spiral that leads directly to dead-end jobs and unemployment.

Many would argue that the American education system has a lot of problems.

And if educators were putting together a priority list, it’s fair to say the struggling performance of Latino students would be pretty near the top.

Latinos are now the largest (and most rapidly growing) ethnic minority in the country – but they are falling dangerously behind their non-Hispanic peers in schools.

Hobbled start

A big part of the problem is that this cycle of failure starts very early.

Forty-two percent of Hispanic children arrive at kindergarten already demonstrating poor reading skills, compared to just 18 percent of white children. And that achievement gap never closes.

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It’s not surprising, really. If you were in a 100-yard dash and somebody kicked you in the shin just before the start whistle, you’d likely hobble at the beginning. And in the middle, and right through to the end.

In the same way, many Latino children start their education already so academically hobbled and far behind that there’s no realistic chance of catching up.

Future workforce

While such a situation is obviously an individual tragedy for countless thousands of children, it also has significant implications for our country as a whole.

We’ve already alluded to the reason why: Hispanic students represent the single largest minority group in America today. Currently, one in four U.S. children is Hispanic, and by 2030 that proportion will be one in three.

In short, today’s Hispanic students will represent a significant proportion of our future workforce. And if a significant number of them can’t read properly, that won’t be good news for anyone.

(A quick example: In California, where 48 percent of public school students are Latino, The Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has projected an 11 percent drop in per capita income in the coming years.)

Reading struggles

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. A major new report shows that Latino students have made some firm academic gains over the past decade. That’s to be celebrated.

But even here, the study found almost a quarter of Hispanic students were still not proficient in reading – a significant weakness.

According to the report’s author, Manica Ramos: “Seeing that many Latino students struggle in reading is troubling, because having good reading skills is so fundamental to understanding what’s being taught in school, and to success in many jobs.”

Reading at home

Of course, there’s a complex web of reasons why Hispanic students do so poorly at school. Poverty, a lack of school resources, language difficulties – the list goes on and on.

But the key thing is to remember that many Hispanic kids turn up to kindergarten already behind. The damage is done – the runner has been kicked hard in the shin, so to speak – before school even begins.

That’s why it’s especially important for Latino parents to spend regular, quality time reading with their children, long before school even starts.

Lack of confidence

And here’s the problem: All too often, this doesn’t happen.

Why not? Patricia Gándara, an education specialist, puts her finger on the problem:

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“Many low-income Latino parents have come to believe they cannot help their children learn because they haven’t experienced much formal education themselves, or because they don’t speak English. [But] such parents can and should be critical educators for their children.”

The fact is, regardless of their own level of education, Latino parents can make a huge, instrumental difference for their own kids – if only they knew it.

Choosing books

If you’re honest, you’re probably thinking this sounds like a hopeless, irremediable situation, right? But it’s not, and we can’t let it be.

Book Trust was founded over ten years ago with the express aim of helping kids from poor families to access books and learn literacy skills.

We raise money so children in low-income schools can choose and buy their own books every month throughout the school year. Basically, we make sure that they too can have an opportunity to fall in love with reading.

Parental role

However, a big part of our focus is helping parents to understand the importance of their own role.

Sure, dedicated teachers (of which there are many!) and organizations such as ours can provide the books and encouragement.

But we can only take a child so far. What about the 119 hours each week when children aren’t in school?

Everyone counts

There’s no doubt that, for low-income Hispanic families struggling to raise a family, life can be very tough. But there are still ways to ensure that young kids get an opportunity to become good little readers.

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If the parents are holding down three jobs, say, then maybe an older sibling can read to the little ones.

And parents who don’t speak English should never doubt the importance of their role. They can simply listen to their child read (in English) and then talk about the books in Spanish.

Reading ritual

The fact is, sharing a reading experience and then talking about it is inspirational for a child, regardless of the language used.

Any parent can still ask What was your favorite part? and Who was the best character? afterwards. And it’s these conversations – where children pick up new facts and bounce around ideas – that really count.

Another good tip is to make a little fun ritual out of reading. By establishing a time to read together every day – maybe after school or at bedtime – parents will both improve their children’s literacy skills and enjoy a special bonding time together.

Hope begins

There is so much untapped potential between Hispanic parents and their children.

And many just need a little support so they can grow in confidence and recognize the value of their own contribution.

Ultimately, hope can start in the home.

Find out more about Book Trust and receive updates about our work.

Are you kids glued to their electronic devices? It’s the Rise of the Screenagers.

Find out Why Books Matter for Children.

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