New Haven School Officials Struggle to Increase Latino Graduation Rates


By Ken Liebskind

If you are a Latino attending high school in New Haven public schools, there is less than a 50 percent chance that you will graduate on time. Due to the alarming statistics for Hispanic students, and the fact that the city is lagging behind the state’s overall Hispanic graduation rate, school officials are implementing new programs and keying in on the various reasons why Latino students continue to post lower rates than many of their peers.
The city’s school officials are combating the “significantly” lower numbers with new programs to counter the trend, which will focus on bridging the language gap. The schools’ administrators hope to increase the four-year graduation rate for Latino high school students by introducing English Language Learner (ELL) programs into the curriculum. 
School officials said the reasons for gap are varied and numerous. The city has charted well below the state’s average Hispanic graduation rate, which has hovered around 62 percent in recent years, and teachers and administrators cited language barriers, lack of motivation and options for undocumented immigrants, and familial responsibilities for the shortfall of Latino graduates. 
In 2012, 46.5 percent of Latino students at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School graduated within four years, and only 29.7 percent of Hillhouse High School’s did the same, according to state Board of Education figures. There were 1,715 Latino students overall in New Haven public high schools in 2012.
Latino graduation rates lag behind those of other students, often significantly,” New Haven Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries said. “And boys graduate at a lower rate than girls.”
According to statewide data released by the State Department of Education, 64 percent of Hispanic students graduated on time in 2010, lagging behind the 81.8 percent state average overall. In 2011, Latinos saw a slight uptick, charting a 64.2 percent four-year graduation rate.
The ELL program began a few years ago, when a sheltered content program was instituted, which coordinated language specialists with subject teachers. “They work hand in hand in a collaborative manner to insure students meet their academic goals and have all the credits they need to graduate,” said Pedro Medina, the New Haven’s ELL supervisor.
Wilbur Cross, New Haven’s largest high school, will institute a program with the International Network for Public Schools in the fall, which will offer ELL as part of an interdisciplinary program. “It’s a small learning community and a comprehensive program where students will develop language skills and learn from each other, not just from their teachers,” Harries said.
The ELL programs are geared toward the segment of the Latino community that continues to graduate at a lower rate than other groups.
In another attempt to bolster numbers, Kermit Carolina, the principal at Hillhouse High School, increased the English and reading class time from 45 to 90 minutes per day and instituted a variety of sheltered instruction programs, according to assistant principal John Nguyen.
While reading comprehension is integral to success in the classroom, Harries said language barriers are the main reason for the lower rate, albeit not the only one. “Many students drop out to work and begin their adult lives and provide support for their parents, siblings or their own families,” he said, adding that many Puerto Rican immigrants often return home.
Pedro Mendia-Landa, who supervises the ELL programs, also pointed to reasons why undocumented Latinos fail to graduate. “Undocumented immigrants have no way of going to college and no way out, so they see that as a reason for not continuing their education,” he explained.
However, experts at ConnCAN, a state advocacy organization that focuses on public schools, say students’ futures in academics are often predetermined not when they enter high school, but at a younger age.
CEO of ConnCAN Jennifer Alexander said low graduation rates for Latino students reflect academic problems that start in the lower grades. “The gap starts early and persists all the way through,” she said.
Charter schools, like Capital Preparatory and University High School in Hartford, Waterbury Arts and the Academy of Information Technology in Stamford, may be the key to bringing up the numbers as they have the highest four-year graduation rates, coming in at or above 97 percent, she said.
She added that failure to graduate high school “translates into the income gaps Hispanic and Latino workers earn” and pointed to how Hispanics have the lowest wages in the state.
ConnCan’s website’s predictions are foreboding if Latino graduation rates do not significantly increase in the near future, stating, “If we fail to increase graduation rates significantly, especially for students of color, we risk seeing a continued increase in the proportion of children who are not prepared for success in our state—and we put our state’s economic future in peril.”
(Photo by shiladsen via Flickr)