A cultural challenge: bridging the rural Hispanic student achievement gap

In order to bridge the Hispanic student achievement gap, Idaho’s rural schools may need to change their culture.

Schools will need to encourage parental involvement and provide a welcoming environment that is not only bilingual but bicultural.

ROCI webinar, 4.16.15
Participants in a Thursday morning webinar on rural Hispanic education in Idaho, from left: J.J. Saldana, Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs; Liliana Vega, University of Idaho; Idaho Court of Appeals Justice Sergio Gutierrez; moderator Anthony Martinez; and Ed Kissam, a researcher working with the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho.

That was one point of consensus from a panel of Hispanic community leaders, who discussed a new report on Hispanic students in rural Idaho. The report was sponsored by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, which also hosted a Thursday morning webinar to discuss its findings.

Researchers found that the Hispanic student learning gap grows as rural students advance through the school system. In elementary school, 73 percent of students receive proficient test scores — but that figure drops to 67 percent in middle school and 50 percent in high school.

“It suggests that instruction may not be the problem,” said Ed Kissam, an applied researcher who co-wrote the report, “The Long Road Toward Equal Educational Opportunity for Rural Hispanic Students: New Insights and Strategies from Idaho.”

Instead, Kissam said, economic and social forces may be an underlying cause of the achievement gap.

But the solutions aren’t simple.

Creating a welcoming environment. Liliana Vega, an assistant professor and extension educator at the University of Idaho, described her own experience growing up in rural Idaho. She saw discriminatory and racist attitudes coming from the administrative level — and based on what she hears from students today, she said, this hasn’t changed.

Hiring a bilingual staff is important. But it is more important to provide training in cultural awareness — and start from the top down. “Those are the administrators and teachers who really are going to understand how to work with Latino audiences.”

Increasing parental involvement. Hispanic students may fare better in elementary school because their parents are more engaged. But Hispanic parents may see less need to be involved at the high school level, as their children begin juggling school and work, and parents may simply feel more intimidated by the high school setting.

At any grade level, a “customer service” mentality is key, said J.J. Saldana of the Idaho Council for Hispanic Affairs. Parents may be nervous enough going into their child’s school, and a single encounter with a grouchy secretary may be enough to sour them on the idea of engagement.

Rethinking the learning environment. If parents and educators focus only on the in-school learning experience, the process will fail, said Idaho Court of Appeals Justice Sergio Gutierrez. The learning environment can change for the better, and sometimes in subtle ways. For example, he said, the increased popularity of soccer in the U.S. could be the catalyst for providing Hispanic students with an extracurricular learning experience that also encourages them to stay in school.

The report quantifies the growth of the Hispanic student population. Nationally, one in six rural students is Hispanic, and this population is growing by 7 percent per decade.

In Idaho, 30,000 Hispanic students attend rural schools — largely in 40 districts in southern Idaho and the Treasure Valley. That means Idaho policymakers have the luxury of focusing their attention on a select number of districts, Kissam said.

Disclosure: The Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho is funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which also funds Idaho Education News.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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