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Estudiantes de Secundaria de California. (Official Marine Corps Photo By Lance Cpl. Kasey Peacock/Released) 
Students in California. (Official Marine Corps Photo By Lance Cpl. Kasey Peacock/Released) 

How to empower the bilingual student

Researchers from University of California at Santa Cruz discuss the educational needs of Latino, immigrant, and disadvantaged youth

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If so many studies confirm that being bilingual or multilingual is an educational asset, why are children whose mother tongue is not English and who must learn it as a second language during schooling stigmatized for years? How can we improve a school model that is prejudicial to children whose native language is not English?

On May 30, a group of academics from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) met to discuss the educational needs of Latinos and immigrant youth in California.

According to Peggy Estrada, an associate research scientist in Latin American and Latino Studies at UCSC, 43 percent of K-12 school children in California speak a primary language other than English in the home.

"Children who don't pass an English proficiency test when they enroll in school are classified as "English learners," or ELs, a label that carries a "deficit" connotation because it is based on failing to meet a performance threshold, Estrada said, as reported in the UCSC statement. She noted that while these students come from various backgrounds, the vast majority are U.S.-born, Latino, and poor.

In research based on interviews and surveys of teachers and school staff in two districts across the state, Estrada and her team uncovered widespread stigmatization of secondary English learners labeled long-term ELs because they were not reclassified as English-proficient within an assumed normative period. The host of "unintended negative consequences" on students include curricular placement that isolates them academically, linguistically, and socially. These conditions are related to diminished student academic self-efficacy and teacher instructional self-efficacy. Estrada called on educators to build on the competencies and potential of English learners and to support the English language development of all students.

Veronica Terriquez, associate professor of sociology, also spoke during the workshop. She believes that it is important to explore how young people, especially immigrants, learn to become civically engaged and politically active.  The professor is developing a theoretical model to measure the impact of potential pathways to engagement that include parental engagement, involvement with civic associations, high school classes, and media, particularly social media.

"Immigrant youth tend to be less engaged than their native-born counterparts," she said, adding that her own survey research indicates that parental engagement appears to be a strong predictor of youth engagement for most youth, regardless of immigrant background. However, she has also found that the small proportion of young people who become involved in grassroots youth organizing or other social change associations during adolescence tend to exhibit particularly high levels of civic and political participation in early adulthood.

On the other hand, Laura Giuliano, soon to be a professor of economics at UCSC, discussed the effects of mathematics acceleration beginning in the sixth grade, looking at impacts on girls, students from low-income families, and students from groups that are underrepresented in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Students in the United States do poorly in math and science compared to their counterparts in much of the world, noted Giuliano. Accelerated math pathways, including "Algebra for All" programs, are intended to improve overall student performance in STEM fields and encourage more girls and underrepresented minorities to pursue math and science—which underscores the importance of evaluating the success of such programs, as well as alternative methods of determining which students are accelerated, she said.

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